Bumping into Jerry Westerby - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

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

Chapter 11. Bumping into Jerry Westerby

In a ground-floor cellar in Fleet Street that is full of wine barrels, George Smiley sits with Jerry Westerby over a very large pink gin. I am quoting from my novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Whose pink gin it is we’re not told, but we assume it’s Jerry’s. A page later, Jerry orders a Bloody Mary, we assume for Smiley. He is a sports correspondent of the old school. He is built large and is a former wicket keeper for a county cricket team. He has ‘enormous’ hands cushioned with muscle, a mop of sandy grey hair, and a red face that in embarrassment turns scarlet. He wears a famous cricketing tie - which one, the text does not reveal - over a cream silk shirt.

In addition to being a seasoned sports correspondent, Jerry Westerby is a British intelligence agent and worships the ground Smiley walks on. He is also a perfect witness. He has no malice, no axe to grind. He does what the best secret agents do. He gives you chapter and verse, and leaves the theorizing to the Secret Service’s analysts - or, as he fondly calls them, the owls.

While being gently debriefed by Smiley in an Indian restaurant of Jerry’s choice, he orders himself the hottest curry on the menu, shatters a poppadom over it - again with his ‘enormous’ hands, repeated then spreads a crimson sauce on it, we assume a lethally hot chilli, to give it bite. It is Jerry’s little joke that the restaurant manager keeps the sauce in his deep shelter. In sum then, Jerry comes over as a shy, lumbering, puppyish, endearing fellow who, in his shyness, has a tic of resorting to what he would call Red Indian-speak, even to the point of saluting Smiley with How! before ‘padding off into his own reserves’.

End of scene. And end of Jerry Westerby’s cameo part in the novel. His job is to give Smiley disturbing intelligence about one of the suspected moles inside the Circus: Toby Esterhase. He hates doing it, but knows it’s his duty. And that’s all we learn about Jerry Westerby from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and it’s all I knew about him too, until I set off for South Asia to research The Honourable Schoolboy, and took Jerry along with me as my secret sharer.

If the Jerry of my novel was loosely descended from anyone in my real life, then it was probably one Gordon, an upper-class drifter of vaguely aristocratic origin whom my father had relieved of his family fortune. Later, in despair, he took his own life, which I suppose is why the detail of him remains so clearly imprinted on my memory. His aristocratic origins entitled him to put the absurd ‘Honourable’ before his name, and this was the ‘Honourable’ that I had awarded to my Jerry in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - although nothing on God’s earth would ever persuade him to use it, old boy. As to the ‘Schoolboy’ part - well, Jerry might be a case-hardened front-line reporter and British secret agent, but when it came to matters of the heart he was forty going on fourteen.

So that was the Jerry of my imagining, and that - in surely one of the eeriest encounters of my writing life - was the Jerry I bumped into at Raffles Hotel in Singapore: not a pen-portrait, but the man himself, right down to the huge cushioned hands and ‘enormous’ shoulders. His name wasn’t Westerby, but by then it wouldn’t have surprised me if it had been. It was Peter Simms. He was a veteran British foreign correspondent and also, as is now generally known, though at the time I knew it no better than anyone else, a veteran British secret agent. He was six foot three with sandy hair and a schoolboy grin, and a habit of barking Supah! when he fervently shook your hand in greeting.

Nobody who met him could forget that first instantaneous surge of sheer good fellowship that swept you off your feet. And I shall never forget my sense of awed disbelief tinged with guilt that I was standing face to face with a man I had created out of adolescent memories and thin air, and here he was in the flesh, all six foot three of him.

Here’s what I didn’t know about Peter at the time, but picked up along the way - some of it, sadly, too late. In the Second World War, Simms serves in India with the Bombay Sappers and Miners. I had always assumed there was a bit of empire in Westerby’s early life. Here it was. Afterwards, at Cambridge University, Simms studies Sanskrit and falls in love with Sanda, a beautiful princess from the Shan States who in childhood has sailed the Burmese lakes in a ceremonial boat shaped like a golden bird. Westerby would have fallen just as hard. Already in love with Asia, Simms converts to Buddhism. He and Sanda marry in Bangkok. They remain fiercely and triumphantly together all their lives, sharing all manner of adventures, either by their own choice or on Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Peter teaches at Rangoon University, works for Time magazine in Bangkok and Singapore and later for the Sultan of Oman, and finally for the intelligence branch of the Hong Kong police while Hong Kong was still a colony. At each stage of his life, Sanda is at his side.

In a word, there was not one detail of Simms’ life that I would not have awarded to Jerry Westerby, save perhaps the happy marriage, because I needed him to be a loner, still in search of love. But all this only in retrospect. When I bumped into Peter Simms at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore - where else? - I knew none of it. I knew that here was my Jerry Westerby incarnate, so full of energy and dreams, so ardently British, yet so identified with Asian culture, that if he wasn’t already working for British Intelligence, it was sheer carelessness on their part.

We met again in Hong Kong, again in Bangkok and again in Saigon. Finally I popped the question: might Peter by any chance be willing to accompany me around the stickier corners of South-east Asia? I need not have been so hesitant. Nothing would please him better, old boy. Then might he also, I asked, stoop to accepting a professional fee as my researcher and guide? You jolly well bet he would! His job with the Hong Kong police was running down, and the old cashflow could do with a spot of topping up, no question. We set off on our journeyings. With Peter’s unquenchable energy, Asian erudition and Asian soul, how could I not complete the full-colour version of the Westerby that I had lightly sketched in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy?

In 2002, Peter died in France. An elegant obituary headed ‘Journalist, Adventurer, Spy & Friend’, written by David Greenway - I lifted his cry of Supah! from it - rightly describes him as the model of Jerry Westerby in The Honourable Schoolboy. But my Westerby was there ahead of Peter Simms. What Peter did, incurable romantic, generous to the last, was seize hold of Jerry with both enormous hands, and make him boisterously his own.