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Passing by the well: how le Carré ignored Ireland

John le Carré has spent most of his career exploring the British psyche through the lens of its secret service. You'd think he might have mentioned Ireland once or twice.

John le Carré has just died. In September 2017 Village published an article lamenting the fact he had never written a novel based in Ireland. In the meantime he published one further book but it did not feature this island. Sadly, this gap in his body of work will now never be filled. The 2017 article is reproduced below. 


John le Carré has been writing number-one bestselling novels for more than a half century. His latest offering, ‘A Legacy of Spies’, has generated more interest than usual as it ushers his most celebrated creation, George Smiley, back onto the stage. Better again, it explores the hinterland of what many consider his finest outing, ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’.

The world cannot get enough of le Carré (real name David Corn­well) at the moment, whether on the page or screen, and it is not difficult to see why. Following the hugely successful remake of ‘Tinker Tailor Solder Spy’ for the cinema in 2011 starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy and Benedict Cumberbatch, a whole new generation was introduced to his dazzling back catalogue.

The BBC’s glamorous adaptation of his novel ‘The Night Man­ager’, which railed against the arms industry, enjoyed a massive viewership in 2016 with the great man appearing in a cameo role during one of its highlights. Two other recent films, ‘Our Kind of Traitor’ and ‘A Most Wanted Man’, have kept the le Carré band­wagon rolling.

The future looks rosy. The BBC has plans to remake his 1963 classic, ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’, possibly with the Irish actor Aidan Gillen at the helm as Alec Leamas. Rich­ard Burton excelled in the part in the acclaimed black-and-white masterpiece which was shot in Ireland in 1965.

Moreover, Alan Sisman has published a penetrating biography (2015) for those who can’t get enough. It is all the more interest­ing because le Carré/Cornwell co-operated with Sisman while he was conducting his research for it.

Le Carré has always been at pains to point out that most of what he writes is drawn from his imagination rather than his relatively brief spell as an officer of MI5 from 1956-60, before he transferred to “those shits across the park”.

The drug lords of the pharmaceutical industry

Le Carré eschews the pretensions of the literary world preferring instead to focus on his writing. Famously, he refuses to participate in literary competitions. When asked by an interviewer to comment on “his relationship with the critical establishment”, he revealed: “It doesn’t exist”.

Le Carré has always been at pains to point out that most of what he writes is drawn from his imagination rather than his relatively brief spell as an officer of MI5 (Britain’s domestic and colo­nial security service) which he served during the period 1956-60, before he applied for a transfer to MI6, an organisation he recalls being described by his erstwhile employers at MI5 as “those shits across the park”. MI6 is Britain’s overseas espionage apparatus. After his induc­tion in 1961, he served MI6 until 1964. He escaped aged 33 with enough of his soul intact to transform from spook back into a human being. He has spent the rest of his life – as he puts it – seeking to “explore Britain’s ‘psyche’”, pointing out that in so doing, “its Secret Service is not an unreasonable place to look”. Regretta­bly, he never burdened Smiley nor any of his other characters with the Troubles in Ireland, surely something that had a profound effect on the British ‘psyche’.

Instead, he dealt with the Cold War and the decline of the British Empire; railed against State-inspired injustice across the globe; and highlighted the plight of the Congolese (‘The Mission Song’), Ingush (‘Our Game’) and Pales­tinians (‘The Little Drummer Girl’). Another of his books, ‘The Constant Gardener’, castigated the exploitation of the vulnerable poor of Africa by the drug lords of the pharmaceutical industry. As Sisman recounts: “About six months after the book’s publication he received a letter from the recently appointed director of Oxfam, Barbara Stocking, who wanted ‘to make sure you know how helpful ‘The Constant Gardener’ has been to our “Cut the Cost” campaign to make drugs more accessible to people in developing coun­tries at prices they could afford’”. She referred to the recent success in getting pharmaceutical companies to drop their court case against the South African government for manufacturing generic anti-HIV drugs. “We are certain that public opinion was influenced by ‘The Constant Gardener’”, she told him. Le Carré forwarded a copy of this letter to [his editor] Rowland Phillips. “For me better than 6 Bookers and 20 Soapy awards”, he scribbled in a covering note.

Some delicate truths from the real world

Le Carré’s last offering, ‘The Pigeon Tunnel’, (2016) was a collection of non-fiction reminis­cences. Read in tandem with Sisman’s biography, a few fresh nuggets about some of the more dubious practices undertaken by the spies of the real world emerge.

Sisman reveals that while he was a student at Oxford the young Le Carré was lured into some rather unsavoury MI5 operations at the instiga­tion of MI5’s then D-G, Dick White. Although merely a student, le Carré provided MI5 with reports. One concerned a visiting Communist lecturer to Oxford, Dr Arnold Kettle, whom he believed was gay. Sisman notes that Kettle’s MI5 file would record that it had “been suggested from a somewhat doubtful source that Dr Kettle may have homosexual tendencies”. Sisman speculates: “Perhaps David was that ‘somewhat doubtful source’”.

When le Carré served MI6 in Bonn, one of his tasks was to influence German politicians to support Britain’s desire for accession to the European Economic Community (EEC), the forerunner of the European Union. He once escorted a group of German parliamentarians around London only to discover they wanted to visit a London brothel. Undaunted, he contacted the Special Branch (MI5’s foot soldiers) and was directed towards a suitable establishment where his charges were duly entertained. Le Carré doesn’t tell us (and hopefully doesn’t know) if they were filmed by MI5 while in flagrante delicto for blackmail purposes. The odds are they were. At the time MI5 was obsessed with, and hugely reliant upon, sexual blackmail, as was MI6 (something one of its witnesses lied about at the Hart Inquiry in Northern Ireland last year).

Eunuchs and Prostitutes

Le Carré also discloses in ‘The Pigeon Tunnel’ that while he was conducting research into the career of the notorious MI6 traitor Kim Philby, he spoke to the Nicholas Elliott, also ex-MI6 and a close friend of Philby. Le Carré first encountered Elliot when the older spy sat on the interview board which recruited him – le Carré – to MI6.

Elliot was the last man to talk to Philby in the Leb­anon before he flitted to the USSR. Le Carré’s dis­cussion with Elliott took place much later in 1986. At one point the author asked: “Well, what about the ultimate sanction then – forgive me – could you have him killed, liquidated?”. Elliot was surprised – not at the suggestion that MI6 might engage in assassination – rather that it might do so to a former member. “My dear chap. One of us”, he protested.

Elliot also discussed the career of the novelist Graham Greene, also ex-MI6 with le Carré. “He had this fixation about eunuchs. He’d been read­ing the station code-book and found that the Service actually had a code group for eunuch. Must’ve been from the days when we were run­ning eunuchs in the harems as agents. He was dying to make a signal with eunuch in it. Then one day he found a way. Head Office wanted him to attend a conference. Cape Town I think. He had some operation fixed or something. Not an operation, knowing him, he never mounted one. Anyway he signalled back: “Like the eunuch I can’t come”.

‘The Pigeon Tunnel’ also threw up a few details about the career of one of the ugliest gargoyles in MI6’s bestiary, Sir George Kennedy Young. An enthusiastic and deliberating racist and admirer of fascism, Young was someone who could have tutored Satan in the art of doing evil. It says much about MI6 that someone like him rose to become its Deputy Chief, 1959-61. Village read­ers may recall some of the articles we published earlier this year which detailed how he was responsible for toppling Middle Eastern govern­ments, directing assassination operations; and how he was central to anti-Wilson treachery in the UK in the 1970s. Worse still, he was a black­mailer who compiled details about VIP paedophiles in Westminster which were used to advance his extreme-right-wing Tory political agenda. What we learn from ‘The Pigeon Tunnel’ is that after he left MI6, Young worked for Hambro as a merchant banker. According to Elli­ott he was: “Flawed. Brilliant, coarse, always had to be out on his own. He went to Hambro’s after the Service. I asked them later: how did you make out with George? Were you up or down? They said they reckoned about even. He got them some of the Shah’s money, but he made per­fectly awful balls-ups that cost them about as much as he got for them”.

Le Carré also reveals how the exploitation of prostitution was rife. On one occasion MI6 tried to hire a high-class exponent to entertain an MI6 ‘asset’ from the Middle East on a visit to London. According to Elliott: “St Ermin’s Hotel. She wouldn’t go. Too near the House of Commons. “My husband’s an MP”. She [also] had to have Fourth of June off so that she could take her boy out from Eton”.

No interest in the Troubles

Le Carré has described MI6’s wrongdoing in terms of its “more heinous misdeeds”. Regret­tably, he has never explored any of them in an Irish setting. This despite the fact MI5/6 has spent a fortune in time, energy and gold on this island since 1968. Indeed, Ireland became the place to be for the ambitious spook on the rise during the Troubles.

Le Carré drew a little bit of inspi­ration from the Death on the Rock controversy (during which three unarmed PIRA terrorists were shot dead by the SAS while in Gibraltar on a bomb reconnoitring mission) for ‘A Delicate Truth’ which was also set in Gibraltar. However, the terror plot that ignites the story involves sus­pected Jihadists, not IRA bombers.

The only Irish who appear in ‘A Delicate Truth’ are bit players including a bunch of drunks one of his characters encounters at a hotel: “Arriving at the ground floor he stepped into a seething, howling hubbub of humanity. Amid festoons of green ribbon and balloons a flashing sign proclaimed St. Patrick’s Day. An accordion was screeching out Irish folk music. Burly men and women in green Guinness bonnets were dancing. A drunken woman with her bonnet askew seized his head, kissed him on the lips and told him he was her lovely boy”.

In another recent book, ‘The Mission Song’, Ireland’s contribution was a missionary priest who fathered an illegitimate child with a native Congolese woman.

Passing by the well

Yet there was ample water in the Irish well from which le Carré could have drawn. He could hardly have slept through the international furore sparked by the torture of internees by British Army interrogation specialists, a scandal that lingers to this day; yet it did not spark his imagination. A group of those victims are now suing Britain – represented by glamorous inter­national human right’s lawyer, Amal Clooney.

Did the massacre of unarmed civilians in Derry on Bloody Sunday and the cover-up afterwards by the sinister bully Lord Widgery not fire his anger?

What of the brutalisation and wrongful convictions of the Bir­mingham 6, Guildford 4 et al? What of the car-bombing of Dublin and Monaghan during which 33 people were massacred by the Glennane Gang, some of whom were known British agents and controlled by the RUC Special Branch i.e. MI5? What of the abhorrent child abuse at Kincora?

Was the campaign to destroy the reputation and career of the patently honest Deputy Chief Constable of Manchester, John Stalker, who tried to get to the bottom of the MI5-RUC shoot-to-kill programme in the 1980s of no interest to him in his exploration of the British ‘psyche’?

What about that other honest cop, Sir John Stevens, whose offices in Belfast were set on fire during his investigations of MI5’s exploitation of the UDA as proxy assassins a few years later?

What of the cold-blooded murder of the lawyer, Patrick Finucane in front of his family by acknowledged British agents?

Friends in high places

Le Carré is hardly an anti-Irish bigot. Irish blood runs in his veins. His father, Ronnie, a notorious swindler with whom he had a love-hate relation­ship, was half Irish. Sisman’s brilliant biography is worth reading alone for his account of Ronnie’s shenanigans. Ronnie’s mother hailed from Cork. He was the inspiration for Rick Pym in ‘The Per­fect Spy’, played so magnificently by the Irish actor Ray McAnally in the BBC’s celebrated adap­tation of the novel.

One thing is absolutely certain: he did not ignore the Troubles because he craved a knight­hood. When he was offered one, he turned it down.

Nor is he lazy or short of ideas. He is more pro­lific than writers half a century younger than him.

One possible explanation is that he knew some of the crime lords who perpetrated these horrors. That rather ignominious line-up includes the torture expert Sir Dick White, D-G of MI5 1953-56, and Chief of MI6 1956-1968, who became Security Co-ordinator at Downing Street, 1968–72, and was an advocate of the use of the ‘five techniques’ in NI.

Another pernicious miscreant, Sir Maurice Oldfield, Chief of MI6 1973-78, worked with le Carré on an operation in the early 1960s. The pair would dine together after Oldfield’s retirement in 1978. Oldfield, an accomplished conman and liar, joined le Carré and the actor Sir Alex Guin­ness for lunch while the latter was preparing to play the part of George Smiley in the BBC’s now legendary adaptation of ‘Tinker, Tailor Soldier Spy’. Guinness wanted to meet a real spy for inspiration and absorb some of his mystique. The real Oldfield was a monster, something Guinness failed to discern. According to records furnished to the Hart Inquiry in 2016, Oldfield had enjoyed a “relationship” with the paedo­phile who ran Kincora Boys Home.

Maurice Oldfield

Le Carré was also friendly with David Goodall, a diplomat-spy with Irish blood, from their days together in Bonn. Goodall knew a lot of dark secrets. He rose to become Thatcher’s Security Coordinator at Downing Street, 1982-84, after which he returned to the Foreign Office and led the British delegation negotiating the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 alongside Cabinet Secretary Robert Armstrong. Le Carré used a German property owned by Goodall which he had visited as a setting in one of his books. After it was finished, he told Goodall the scene “includes blowing up your house in the Fasanen­strasse, which I knew you’d like”. Did le Carré ever probe Goodall about the Kincora cover-up which happened under Goodall’s watch, or any­thing else that happened in Ireland?

And now from Sisman’s biography we discover that George Kennedy Young was the inspiration for Percy Alleline, the fictional MI6 Chief in ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’. At least we can infer that le Carré was neither a friend nor an admirer of Young as he portrayed the fictitious Alleline as a buffoon.

Denial and self-delusion

Despite the soft ride le Carré has actually given British Intelligence, especially by ignoring the Troubles, some of his erstwhile colleagues were hostile towards him. “’You bastard, Cornwell’, a middle-aged MI6 officer, once my colleague, yells down the room at me as a bunch of Wash­ington insiders gather for a diplomatic reception hosted by the British Ambassador”, le Carré recalls in ‘The Pigeon Tunnel’. ‘“You utter bas­tard”. He wasn’t expecting to meet me, but now he has done he is glad of the opportunity to tell me what he thinks of me for insulting the honour of the Service – our fucking Service, for fuck’s sake! – and for making clowns of men and women who love their country and can’t answer back. He is standing in front of me in the hunched posi­tion of a man about to let fly, and if diplomatic hands hadn’t gentled him back a step the next morning’s press would have had a field day”.

Oldfield had a tilt at him too: “We are definitely not as our host here describes us”, says Sir Mau­rice Oldfield severely to Sir Alec Guinness over lunch…Oldfield extols the ethical standards of his old Service and implies, in the nicest way, that “young David here” has besmirched its good name…It’s young David and his like”, he declares across the table to Guinness while ignoring me sitting beside him, “that make it that much harder for the Service to recruit decent officers and sources. They read his books and they are put off. It’s only natural”.

Ultimately, le Carré’s neglect of the Troubles may have occurred simply because he enjoyed a surfeit of ideas for his novels which kept taking him in other directions. His neglect of Ireland is a pity, more than a criticism. It does not detract from any of the books he did publish. Nonethe­less, his legacy will be the poorer for it. He was the writer best equipped to deal with the more intricate moral issues faced by the British ‘psyche’ in Ireland.