A Night with John le Carré, George Smiley and Ms Hospitality.
I planned all these different blogposts while I was sitting on the long-haul flight from Melbourne to Edinburgh. I thought I might do something on surviving the flight, for starters. A reader and writer’s ‘capsule survival kit’ – and I think I will. Hint: it’s won’t be about colour coordination, cashmere or uncrushables.
I half wrote these ‘letters home’ in my head in the plane, when thoughts interrupted my breath-counting. I half wrote more when, out-synch, I woke too early to feasibly wake my daughter, a hospitality worker and student, who has been living in Glasgow for the past eight months and is totally in synch with the kind of hours you’d expect from that sentence. A jet-lagged mother, even armed with a cup of tea, is not a welcome sight at 5.00 in the morning when most hospitality workers have reluctantly agreed no one else in the city is likely to serve them a last drink….
All those ideas are shelved because last night, after a pre-theatre dinner at L’escargot Blanc – and more of that later – we heard the live broadcast of John le Carré performing at Southbank. He was magnificent. The evening is part of the publicity machine promoting his book, A Legacy of Spies – a prequel to the George Smiley books which have made le Carré career.
And the evening was billed, ‘A Night with John le Carré and George Smiley’, so there was no doubt to its focus. The first thing that came home to me was how incredible it must be for the man, le Carré, to have these long-term characters inhabit his head. They must buzz around there, insisting on being heard. Sometimes he must simply view a moment and hear Smiley or Guillam speak about it quietly in his mind.
He talked about the characters – not as if they were real people, but as living constructs – which, of course they are. He paid tribute to the man who first showed him writing and MI5 work could co-exist, John Bingham, a thriller writer, and member of the F4 cohort with whom le Carré spent at least two years. He said that when he packed up his desk at M15 and moved to M16 he took George Smiley along as ‘undeclared baggage’. And then, again, later when he was moved to Bonn in the sixties, George Smiley was securely in his briefcase.
He was witty – M15 insist, of course, on aliases – but they are chosen so the incumbent keeps their initials. Otherwise they’d have to ditch the engraved cufflinks, monogrammed hanky and gilt-embossed briefcase – hallmarks of a successful public service career – and a gentleman’s life.
Neither le Carré not his idealistic but always slightly diffident, clever and flawed, protagonist Smiley, are gentleman. Le Carre’s father was an outright crook – an arms dealer. Like Smiley, then, le Carré was an outsider – intelligent, sharply observant – of course – but I wondered how much of that was originally fostered in order to blend in? Smiley’s second-greatest asset is his ability to be unseen.
And that’s what makes le Carré books such stand-out iconic spy thrillers. Smiley has none of Bond’s ridiculous flash accessories. His wife is a serial adulterer. His habitual gesture is polishing his glasses on his tie. (Something le Carré picked up from watching John Bingham).
And the spies on either side are shadow-matched – as they have to be – each with their own vulnerability, their darkness and their own honour.
Le Carré has always written from character – but it’s character embedded in the world he witnessed. Once he became a ‘freestanding’ writer, his work was divided into research travelling – acutely observing, taking notes and meeting people, before he returned to do the writing. It was a thrilling moment when he said, ‘No matter the time, whenever I got back to the hotel, I’d make my notes. It didn’t matter how late it was or how drunk I was. I’d have to write down my impressions – just two paragraphs, even. Because the first day you arrive in Moscow, all you smell is petrol – Russian petrol. By the second day, you no longer smell it.’
Reader, I’d have given him a standing ovation then and there!
And the other applause out loud moment was when he admitted to not having a plan or plot outline or flow chart for his novels. He confessed that what he started with was simply an end image, more cinematic than writerly – the final pull away shot.
His readings from the various books – perfectly timed and slotted in between anecdotes, a potted biography and other information, including revelations about his father – were actorly – but not forced, just subtle changes of pitch, accent – as he briefly embodied each of the characters who have lived in him for so many years.
When the lights went up, two older men sitting behind us were talking about when and where they’d read his books. I tried to tell my daughter for the umpteenth time how I’d hear le Carré talk about The Constant Gardener on a radio interview that made me cry – his passion for justice at 70 humbling, inspiring – and just so goddam good!
As we filed out of the Cameo (older style – red velvet seats that reclined a little if you pushed back on them, the cinema smell of popcorn and cheap carpet) I thought a) I have to read all the Smiley novels again and b) I really do have to donate some money to Médecins Sans Frontières which has always been my charity of choice, although recently I’ve been beguiled by the orangutans of Borneo.
There’s so much about the word that is wrong – just completely and utterly wrong – but a night like that edges one back on the path of optimism. Le Carré is a quiet, persuasive, intelligent crusader. The actors, scriptwriters, and producers in the well-made talking heads section that opened the night, all movingly spoke of him as a brilliant writer, a man of integrity and grace and one who made them work to the top of their game.
The evening started with frivolity – serious wine-tasting as Ms Hospitality and I swirled our matched-to-entrée wines, sniffed and isolated ‘Grapefruit and honeysuckle,’ ‘Leather and prunes.’
It ended with an observation from us both that le Carré might well have smiled benignly on:
‘Did you see how Jon Snow’s tie matched his socks?’
‘Yeah, I knew you’d notice.’
‘I knew you’d notice.’
‘And it wasn’t a perfect matchy matchy.’
‘Nuh. Those socks referenced that tie!’