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Monday, October 18, 2021

Old pals or cold war? What John le Carré and British Intelligence really thought of each other

But imagine it he did. In Absolute Friends (2003), MI6 is depicted as not only corrupt, but pathetic: colluding with the wicked schemes of the CIA in the forlorn hope of being treated as an equal partner. It is hard not to feel that the central character, Ted Mundy, is being used as a mouthpiece for his creator when he rails against the way in which “the dismally ill-managed country he’d done a little of this and that for is being marched off to quell the natives on the strength of a bunch of lies, in order to please a renegade hyperpower that thinks it can treat the rest of the world as its allotment”.

In recent years, le Carré rarely missed an opportunity to have a dig at the 21st-century version of his old Service. In A Legacy of Spies (2017), Smiley’s old sidekick Peter Guillam is hauled out of retirement to answer questions about the operation they conducted in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; but, morally dubious though the Old Guard may have been, you never sense for a moment that the author wants you to side against Guillam and with the arse-covering, optics-obsessed employees of today’s MI6. The scorn even extends to “the Service’s shockingly ostentatious new headquarters”, a “grotesque fortress beside the Thames” compared unfavourably by Guillam with the rickety old HQ in Cambridge Circus.

After Richard Dearlove made his comments in 2019, le Carré gleefully predicted that “when my new novel comes out … Sir Richard and his notional colleagues are going to be mad as bed-bugs.” This was Agent Running in the Field, which once again depicted MI6 as an organisation in which mediocrities triumphed while true talent was squandered. More seriously, it was accused of being complicit in the supposed collusion between Presidents Trump and Putin to destabilise Europe.

One character anatomises the hypocrisy of the Intelligence community: “Even if such people profess an admiration for Western democracy, they still prefer the easy life as opposed to recognising their duty as responsible opponents of the encroaching fascist enemy.”

One should, of course, be careful in attributing the views of a character to the novelist, and the character in question here is certainly not infallibly wise and rational all through the book. Nevertheless it seems pretty clear that by the time of his death le Carré had lost much of what faith he had ever had in the British Intelligence services.

Talking to me a few years ago about his time in MI6, he said: “I did think… that I was doing the very best I could for my country. And as everybody in the secret world likes to believe, getting my hands dirty so that other people could sleep at night.” He felt, I suspect, that he would have found it a lot harder to maintain that feeling of doing the best he could for his country had he been working there in the 21st century.

Le Carré liked to quote Sir David Spedding’s view: “He kindly believed that, due in part to my novels, MI6 had assumed a sensible place in the public awareness: human, fallible, aspirational, contentious, and part of real life.” But are his critics within MI6 right to see his version of the Service as more malign than fallible, or are they being over-sensitive?

Whatever the answer, one can see why they would find it a pressing issue. Le Carré may only have worked there for a few years, in what seems like another age. But thanks to his storytelling genius, he has probably had more influence on how the world perceives MI6 than all of its other employees put together.

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