Introduction - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (2016)


I sit at my desk in the basement of the little Swiss chalet that I built with the profits from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in a mountain village ninety minutes by train from Bern, the city to which at the age of sixteen I had fled from my English public school and where I had enrolled at Bern University. At weekends a great bunch of us students, boys and girls, mostly Bernese, would flood up to the Oberland, bunk down in mountain huts and ski our hearts out. So far as I ever knew we were the soul of probity: boys one side, girls the other, never the twain shall meet. Or if they did, I was never one of them.

The chalet sits above the village. Through my window, if I take a steep look upwards, I can glimpse the peaks of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, and most beautiful of all, the Silberhorn and the Kleines Silberhorn half a step below it: two sweetly pointed cones of ice that periodically succumb to drabness in the warm south wind called the Föhn, only to reappear days later in all their bridal glory.

Among our patron saints we have the ubiquitous composer Mendelssohn - follow the arrows for the Mendelssohn walk - the poet Goethe, though he seems to have made it only as far as the waterfalls of the Lauterbrunnental, and the poet Byron, who made it as far as the Wengernalp and hated it, protesting that the sight of our storm-ravaged forests ‘reminded me of myself and my family’.

But the patron saint we most revere is undoubtedly one Ernst Gertsch, who brought fame and fortune to the village by inaugurating the Lauberhorn Ski Race in 1930, in which he himself won the slalom. I was once mad enough to take part in it and, by a combination of incompetence and naked fear, came the predictable cropper. My researches tell me that, not content to become the father of ski racing, Ernst went on to give us the steel edges to our skis and steel platforms for our bindings, for which we may all be thankful to him.

The month is May, so we get a whole year’s weather in one week: yesterday a couple of feet of fresh snow and not a single skier to enjoy it; today an unobstructed scorching sun, and the snow nearly gone again and the spring flowers back in business. And now this evening, thunderclouds of Payne’s grey getting ready to march up the Lauterbrunnen valley like Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

And probably in their wake, and because for the last days we have been spared a visit, the Föhn will return and sky, meadows and forests will be drained of colour, and the chalet will creak and fidget, and the wood smoke will roll out of the fireplace on to the carpet we paid too much for on that rainy afternoon in Interlaken in the snowless winter of whenever it was, and every clank and honk coming up from the valley will ring out like a sullen call of protest, and all birds will be confined to their nests for the duration, except for the choughs who take orders from no one. In the Föhn, don’t drive a car, don’t propose marriage. If you’ve got a headache or an urge to kill your neighbour, be consoled. It’s not a hangover, it’s the Föhn.

The chalet has a place in my eighty-four years of life that is quite disproportionate to its size. In the years before I built it, I came to this village as a boy, first to ski on skis of ash or hickory, using seal skins to climb uphill and leather bindings to come down again, then to walk the mountains in summer with my wise Oxford mentor, Vivian Green, later Rector of Lincoln College, who gave me by his example the inner life of George Smiley.

It’s no coincidence that Smiley like Vivian loved his Swiss Alps, or like Vivian found his consolation in landscape, or like myself had a lifelong, unreconciled relationship with the German muse.

It was Vivian who put up with my maunderings about my wayward father, Ronnie; Vivian again who, when Ronnie made one of his more spectacular bankruptcies, found the necessary cash and hauled me back to complete my studies.

In Bern I had got to know the scion of the oldest family of hotel owners in the Oberland. Without his later influence I would never have been allowed to build the chalet in the first place, for then as now no foreigner may own so much as a square foot of village land.

It was also while I was in Bern that I took my first infant steps for British Intelligence, delivering I knew not what to I knew not whom. I spend a lot of odd moments these days wondering what my life would have looked like if I hadn’t bolted from my public school, or if I had bolted in a different direction. It strikes me now that everything that happened later in life was the consequence of that one impulsive adolescent decision to get out of England by the fastest available route and embrace the German muse as a substitute mother.

I wasn’t a failure at school, far from it: captain of things, winner of school prizes, potential golden boy. And it was a very discreet bolt. I didn’t howl and scream. I just said, ‘Father, you may do with me what you will, I won’t go back.’ And very probably I blamed the school for my woes - and England along with it - when my real motive was to get out from under my father at all costs, which I could hardly say to him. Since then, of course, I have watched my own children do the same, though more elegantly and with a lot less fuss.

But none of that answers the central question of what direction my life might otherwise have taken. Without Bern, would I have been recruited as a teenaged errand boy of British Intelligence, doing what the trade calls a little of this and that? I hadn’t read Maugham’s Ashenden by then, but I had certainly read Kipling’s Kim and any number of chauvinistic adventure stories by G. A. Henty and his ilk. Dornford Yates, John Buchan and Rider Haggard could do no wrong.

And of course, a mere four years after the war’s end I was the greatest British patriot in the hemisphere. At my preparatory school we boys had become expert at identifying German spies in our ranks, and I was counted one of our better counter-espionage operatives. At my public school, our jingoistic fervour was unconfined. We did ‘Corps’ - military training in full uniform - twice a week. Our young teachers had returned tanned from the war and on Corps days sported their medal ribbons. My German teacher had had a wonderfully mysterious war. Our careers adviser prepared us for a lifetime’s service in distant outposts of empire. The Abbey at the heart of our little town was hung with regimental flags shot to shreds in colonial wars in India, South Africa and Sudan, the shreds then restored to glory on fishnet by loving female hands.

It is therefore no sort of surprise when the Great Call came to me in the person of a thirty-something mumsy lady named Wendy from the British Embassy’s visa section in Bern, that the seventeen-year-old English schoolboy punching above his weight at a foreign university should have snapped to attention and said, ‘At your service, Ma’am!’

More difficult to explain is my wholesale embrace of German literature at a time when for many people the word German was synonymous with unparalleled evil. Yet, like my flight to Bern, that embrace has determined the whole later passage of my life. Without it, I would never have visited Germany in 1949 on the insistence of my Jewish refugee German teacher, never seen the flattened cities of the Ruhr, or lain sick as a dog on an old Wehrmacht mattress in a makeshift German field hospital in the Berlin Underground; or visited the concentration camps of Dachau and Bergen-Belsen while the stench still lingered in the huts, thence to return to the unruffled tranquillity of Bern, to my Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse. I would certainly never have been assigned to intelligence duties in occupied Austria for my National Service, or studied German literature and language at Oxford, or gone on to teach them at Eton, or been posted to the British Embassy in Bonn with the cover of a junior diplomat, or written novels with German themes.

The legacy of that early immersion in things German is now pretty clear to me. It gave me my own patch of eclectic territory; it fed my incurable romanticism and my love of lyricism; it instilled in me the notion that a man’s journey from cradle to grave was one unending education - hardly an original concept and probably questionable, but nevertheless. And when I came to study the dramas of Goethe, Lenz, Schiller, Kleist and Büchner, I discovered that I related equally to their classic austerity, and to their neurotic excesses. The trick, it seemed to me, was to disguise the one with the other.

The chalet is pushing fifty years old. Every winter season as the children grew up, they came here to ski, and this was where we had our best times together. Sometimes we did spring as well. It was here too that for four hilarious weeks in, I think, the winter of 1967 I was cloistered with Sydney Pollack, film director of Tootsie, Out of Africa and - my favourite - They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? while we thrashed out a screenplay of my novel A Small Town in Germany.

The snow that winter was perfect. Sydney had never skied, never been to Switzerland. The sight of happy skiers whizzing nonchalantly past our balcony was simply too much for him. He had to be one of them, and it had to be now. He wanted me to instruct him, but thank Heaven I called up Martin Epp instead: ski teacher, legendary mountain guide and one of a rare breed to have made a solitary ascent of the north face of the Eiger.

The A-list film director from South Bend, Indiana, and the A-list mountaineer from Arosa hit it off at once. Sydney did nothing by halves. Within days, he was a competent skier. He was also seized with a passionate desire to make a movie about Martin Epp, and it soon transcended his desire to make A Small Town in Germany. The Eiger would play Destiny. I would write the screenplay, Martin would play himself and Sydney would be harnessed halfway up the Eiger filming him. He called his agent and told him about Martin. He called his analyst and told him about Martin. The snow remained perfect and took its toll of Sydney’s energies. Evenings, after a bath, we decided, were our best times for writing. Whether they were or not, neither movie was ever made.

Later, somewhat to my surprise, Sydney lent the chalet to Robert Redford for him to reconnoitre his movie Downhill Racer. Alas, I never met him, but for years afterwards, wherever I went in the village, I wore the cachet of Robert Redford’s friend.

These are true stories told from memory - to which you are entitled to ask, what is truth, and what is memory to a creative writer in what we may delicately call the evening of his life? To the lawyer, truth is facts unadorned. Whether such facts are ever findable is another matter. To the creative writer, fact is raw material, not his taskmaster but his instrument, and his job is to make it sing. Real truth lies, if anywhere, not in facts, but in nuance.

Was there ever such a thing as pure memory? I doubt it. Even when we convince ourselves that we’re being dispassionate, sticking to the bald facts with no self-serving decorations or omissions, pure memory remains as elusive as a bar of wet soap. Or it does for me, after a lifetime of blending experience with imagination.

Here and there, where I thought the story merited it, I have lifted bits of conversation or description from newspaper articles I wrote at the time because their freshness appealed to me, and because later memory didn’t deliver the same sharpness: for example, my description of Vadim Bakatin, one-time head of the KGB. In other cases I’ve left the story pretty much as I wrote it at the time, just tidied it here and there, added the odd grace note to make it clearer or bring it up to date.

I don’t wish to presume in my reader a great knowledge of my work - or, for that matter, any knowledge of it at all, hence the odd explanatory passage along the way. But please be assured: nowhere have I consciously falsified an event or a story. Disguised where necessary, yes. Falsified, emphatically not. And wherever my memory is shaky, I have taken care to say so. A recently published account of my life offers thumbnail versions of one or two of the stories, so it naturally pleases me to reclaim them as my own, tell them in my own voice and invest them as best I can with my own feelings.

Some episodes have acquired a significance I wasn’t aware of at the time, perhaps because of the death of a main player. Throughout a long life I kept no diary, just here and there the odd travel note or line of irretrievable dialogue: for instance, from my days with Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the PLO, before his expulsion from Lebanon; and afterwards my abortive visit to his white hotel in Tunis, the same town in which several members of his high command, billeted a few miles down the road from him, were assassinated by an Israeli hit team a few weeks after I left.

Men and women of power drew me because they were there, and because I wanted to know what made them tick. But in their presence all I seem to have done in retrospect was nod wisely, shake my head in the right places, and try a joke or two to ease the strain. Only afterwards, back in my hotel bedroom, did I fish out my mangled notepad and attempt to make sense of what I had heard and seen.

The other scribbles that survive from my travels were made for the most part not by me personally, but by the fictional characters I took along with me for protection when I ventured into the field. It was from their eye-line, not mine, and in their words, that the notes were written. When I found myself cringing in a dugout beside the Mekong River, and for the first time in my life heard bullets smacking into the mud bank above me, it was not my own quivering hand that confided my indignation to a scruffy notebook, but the hand of my courageous fictional hero, the front-line reporter Jerry Westerby, for whom being shot at was part of the daily grind. I used to think I was exceptional in this way until I met a celebrated war photographer who confessed to me that it was only when he was peering through the lens of his camera that the funk left him.

Well, it never left me. But I know what he was talking about.

If you’re ever lucky enough to score an early success as a writer, as happened to me with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, for the rest of your life there’s a before-the-fall and an after-the-fall. You look back at the books you wrote before the searchlight picked you out and they read like the books of your innocence; and the books after it, in your low moments, like the strivings of a man on trial. ‘Trying too hard’ the critics cry. I never thought I was trying too hard. I reckoned I owed it to my success to get the best out of myself, and by and large, however good or bad the best was, that was what I did.

And I love writing. I love doing what I’m doing at this moment, scribbling away like a man in hiding at a poky desk on a black-clouded early morning in May, with the mountain rain scuttling down the window and no excuse for tramping down to the railway station under an umbrella because the International New York Times doesn’t arrive till lunchtime.

I love writing on the hoof, in notebooks on walks, in trains and cafés, then scurrying home to pick over my booty. When I am in Hampstead there is a bench I favour on the Heath, tucked under a spreading tree and set apart from its companions, and that’s where I like to scribble. I have only ever written by hand. Arrogantly perhaps, I prefer to remain with the centuries-old tradition of unmechanized writing. The lapsed graphic artist in me actually enjoys drawing the words.

I love best the privacy of writing, which is why I don’t do literary festivals and, as much as I can, stay away from interviews, even if the record doesn’t look that way. There are times, usually at night, when I wish I’d never given an interview at all. First, you invent yourself, then you get to believe your invention. That is not a process that is compatible with self-knowledge.

On research trips I am partially protected by having a different name in real life. I can sign into hotels without anxiously wondering whether my name will be recognized: then when it isn’t, anxiously wondering why not. When I’m obliged to come clean with the people whose experience I want to tap, results vary. One person refuses to trust me another inch, the next promotes me to Chief of the Secret Service and, over my protestations that I was only ever the lowest form of secret life, replies that I would say that, wouldn’t I? After which, he proceeds to ply me with confidences I don’t want, can’t use and won’t remember, on the mistaken assumption that I will pass them on to We Know Who. I have given a couple of examples of this serio-comic dilemma.

But the majority of the luckless souls I’ve bombarded in this way over the last fifty years - from middle-ranking executives in the pharmaceutical industry to bankers, mercenaries and various shades of spy - have shown me forbearance and generosity. The most generous were the war reporters and foreign correspondents who took the parasitic novelist under their wing, credited him with courage he didn’t possess and allowed him to tag along.

I can’t imagine setting out on my forays in South-east Asia and the Middle East without the advice and companionship of David Greenway, the much decorated South-east Asia correspondent of Time magazine, the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. No timid neophyte can ever have hitched his wagon to such a faithful star. On a snowy morning in 1975, he was sitting at our breakfast table here in the chalet, enjoying a brief respite from the battlefront, when his office in Washington called to tell him that the besieged city of Phnom Penh was about to fall to the Khmer Rouge. There’s no road down to the valley from our village, just a little train that takes you to a bigger train that takes you to a bigger train still, and thence to Zurich airport. In a trice he had changed out of his alpine gear into a war correspondent’s tacky drills and old suede shoes, kissed his wife and daughters farewell, and was pelting down the hill to the station. I pelted after him with his passport.

Famously, Greenway was one of the last US journalists to be airlifted off the roof of the besieged US Embassy in Phnom Penh. In 1981, when I was seized with dysentery at the Allenby Bridge, which connects the West Bank with Jordan, Greenway manhandled me through the mass of impatient travellers waiting to be processed, talked us through the checkpoint by sheer willpower and delivered me across the bridge.

Rereading some of the episodes I have described, I realize that either out of egotism or for the sake of a sharper story I have omitted to mention who else was in the room at the time.

I think of my conversation with the Russian physicist and political prisoner Andrei Sakharov and his wife Elena Bonner, which took place in a restaurant in what was still Leningrad, under the aegis of Human Rights Watch, three of whose members sat at the table with us, and suffered the same childish intrusions from the KGB’s troop of fake photo-journalists who paraded in a ring around us, firing their old-style flash-bulb cameras in our faces. Elsewhere, I hope, others of our party have written their own accounts of that historic day.

I think back to Nicholas Elliott, the longstanding friend and colleague of the double agent Kim Philby, stalking the drawing room of our London house with a glass of brandy in his hand, and I remember too late that my wife was just as present as I was, sitting in an armchair opposite me, and just as spellbound.

And I remember, even as I write this, the evening when Elliott brought his wife Elizabeth to dinner, and we had a loved Iranian guest who spoke immaculate English with a small, rather becoming speech defect. As our Iranian guest departed, Elizabeth turned to Nicholas with a sparkle in her eyes and said excitedly:

‘Did you notice his stammer, darling? Just like Kim!’

The long chapter about my father Ronnie goes to the back of the book rather than the beginning because, much as he would like to, I didn’t want him elbowing his way to the top of the bill. For all the hours I have spent agonizing about him, he remains as much of a mystery to me as does my mother. Unless I have indicated otherwise the stories are fresh from the mint. When I saw a need, I changed a name. The main player may be dead, but his heirs and assigns may not see the joke. I have tried to strike an orderly path through my life in the thematic, if not the chronological sense, but rather like life itself the path widened into incoherence and some stories simply became what they remain to me: stand-alone incidents, sufficient to themselves, pointing in no direction I’m aware of, told for what they have come to mean to me and because they alarm or scare or touch me, or wake me up in the middle of the night and make me laugh out loud.

With the passing of time some of the encounters I describe have acquired to my eye the status of tiny bits of history caught in flagrante, which I suppose is what all older people feel. Rereading them in the whole, farce to tragedy and back again, I find them mildly irresponsible, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s my own life that I find irresponsible. But it’s too late to do anything about that now.

There are many things I am disinclined to write about ever, just as there are in anyone’s life. I have had two immensely loyal and devoted wives, and I owe immeasurable thanks to both, and not a few apologies. I have been neither a model husband nor a model father, and am not interested in appearing that way. Love came to me late, after many missteps. I owe my ethical education to my four sons. Of my work for British Intelligence, performed mostly in Germany, I wish to add nothing to what is already reported by others, inaccurately, elsewhere. In this I am bound by vestiges of old-fashioned loyalty to my former Services, but also by undertakings I gave to the men and women who agreed to collaborate with me. It was understood between us that the promise of confidentiality would be subject to no time limit, but extend to their children and beyond. The work we engaged in was neither perilous nor dramatic, but it involved painful soul-searching on the part of those who signed up to it. Whether today these people are alive or dead, the promise of confidentiality holds.

Spying was forced on me from birth much in the way, I suppose, that the sea was forced on C. S. Forester, or India on Paul Scott. Out of the secret world I once knew I have tried to make a theatre for the larger worlds we inhabit. First comes the imagining, then the search for the reality. Then back to the imagining, and to the desk where I’m sitting now.