Theatre of the Real: terms of endearment - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

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

Chapter 16. Theatre of the Real: terms of endearment

The Commodore Hotel in those tense days - and it’s hard to remember a time when days in Beirut were not tense - was the favoured watering hole of every real or pretended war correspondent, arms dealer, drug merchant and bogus or real aid worker in the hemisphere. Its aficionados liked to compare it with Rick’s joint in Casablanca, but I never saw the comparison. Casablanca wasn’t an urban battlefield, it was just a clearing station, whereas people came to Beirut to make money, or trouble, or even peace, but not because they wanted to escape.

The Commodore was no great looker. Or it wasn’t in 1981, and today it doesn’t exist. It was a boring, straight-up-and-down building of no architectural merit, unless you included the four-foot-thick welcome desk of hardened concrete in the entrance lobby, which in troubled times doubled as a gun emplacement. Its most revered resident was an elderly parrot named Coco that ruled over the cellar bar with a rod of iron. As the techniques of urban warfare became ever more sophisticated - from semi-automatic to rocket-propelled, from light to medium, or whatever the correct vocabulary is - so Coco updated his repertoire of battle sounds to a point where the uninitiated guest grazing at the bar would be roused by the whoosh of an incoming missile and a shriek of ‘Hit the deck, dumb bastard, get your ass down now!’ And nothing better pleased the war-weary hacks returning from another hellish day in paradise than the sight of some poor neophyte disappearing under a table while they go on sipping nonchalantly at their mahogany whiskies.

Coco is also credited with the first bars of the Marseillaise and the opening chords of Beethoven’s Fifth. His leaving is shrouded in mystery: he was smuggled to a safe haven where he sings to this day; he was shot by Syrian militia; he finally succumbed to the alcohol in his feed.

I made several trips to Beirut and South Lebanon that year, partly for my novel, partly for the ill-starred film that resulted from it. In my memory they form a single, unbroken chain of surreal experiences. For the timid, Beirut did fear round the clock, whether you were dining on the Corniche to the clatter of gunfire, or listening carefully to the words of a Palestinian teenager who is holding a Kalashnikov to your head and describing his dream of getting himself to university in Havana to study international relations, and can you help?

As a new boy to the Commodore, I had been drawn to Mo on sight. He had seen more death and dying in an afternoon than I had in a lifetime. He had filed scoops from the worst hearts of darkness the world has to offer. You had only to glimpse him at the end of yet another day at the battlefront, with a tattered khaki carry-bag slung over his shoulder, loping across the crowded lobby on his way to the press office, to recognize his apartness. Mo has the brownest knees in town, they said. Seen it all, done it all, no bullshit, and nobody better in a tight corner, that was Mo, ask anyone who knew him. A little depressed sometimes, a little droll, maybe. And given to locking himself in his room with a bottle for a day or two, why not? And the only known companion of his recent life, a cat, which according to Commodore folklore had hurled itself in despair from a top-floor window.

So when Mo casually suggested, on the second or third day of my very first Beirut visit, that I might care to join him on a little road trip he had in mind, I jumped at the chance. I had been picking the brains of all the other journalists, but Mo had kept himself aloof. I was flattered.

‘Take a ride out to the sands? Say hullo to a coupla crazies I know?’

I said I could wish for nothing better.

‘Lookin’ for colour, right?’

I was looking for colour.

‘Driver’s a Druze. Druze ass’ls don’t give a rat’s fart for any ass’l ’cept themselves. Right?’

Very right indeed, Mo, thank you.

‘Other ass’ls - Shia, Sunni, Christian - they go lookin’ for trouble. Druze ass’ls don’t go lookin’ for trouble.’

Sounds really good.

It’s a checkpoint trip. I hate airports, lifts, crematoria, national borders and frontier guards. But checkpoints are in a league of their own. It’s not your passport they’re checking, it’s your hands. Then it’s your face. Then it’s your charisma or lack of it. And even if one checkpoint decides you’re okay, the last thing it’s going to do is pass on the happy news to the next one, because no checkpoint is going to let itself be sold short on its own suspicions. We have stopped at a barber’s pole balanced between two oil drums. The boy pointing his Kalashnikov at us wears yellow Wellingtons and frayed jeans cut short at the knee, and has a Manchester United supporters’ club badge stitched to his breast pocket.

‘Ass’l Mo!’ this apparition cries delightedly in welcome. ‘Hullo indeed, sir! And how are you today?’ - in studiously practised English.

‘I’m just fine, thank you, Ass’l Anwar, just fine,’ Mo drawls easily. ‘Is Ass’l Abdullah receiving today? Proud to introduce my good friend, Ass’l David.’

‘Ass’l David, you are most extremely welcome, sir.’

We wait while he bawls joyously into his Russian walkie-talkie. The rickety red-and-white pole lifts. I have only a hazy picture of our conference with Ass’l Abdullah. His headquarters was a pile of brick and rock, pitted by gunfire and daubed with slogans. He sat behind a gigantic mahogany desk. Fellow ass’ls lolled around him, fingering their semi-automatics. Above his head hung a framed photograph of a Swissair Douglas DC-8 being blown apart on an airstrip. I remember knowing exactly that the airstrip was called Dawson’s Field, and that the DC-8 had been hijacked by Palestinian fighters with the assistance of the Baader-Meinhof Group. In those days, I flew Swissair a lot. I remember wondering who had gone to the trouble of taking the photograph to the framer and choosing the frame. But most of all I remember thanking my maker that our exchanges were being conducted through an interpreter whose grasp of English was at best uneven, and praying it would remain uneven long enough for our Druze driver who didn’t go looking for trouble to return us to the sweet sanity of the Commodore Hotel. And I remember the happy smile on Abdullah’s bearded face as he laid his hand over his heart and cordially thanked Ass’l Mo and Ass’l David for their visit.

‘Mo likes to take guys to the edge,’ a kind person warned me when it was too late. But the subtext was clear: in Mo’s world, war tourists get what they deserve.

Did the phone call from outer space happen to me that same night? If it didn’t, it should have done. And certainly it happened at the outset of my Beirut period, because only a first-time guest could have been fool enough to accept a complimentary upgrade to a bridal suite on the Commodore’s mysteriously empty top floor. The Beirut nocturnal orchestra in 1981 was not up to the quality of later years, but it was coming on. A standard performance would start around 10 p.m. and hit its climax in the small hours. Guests upgraded to the top floor would be treated to the entire spectacle: flashes like a false dawn, the clatter of incoming and outgoing artillery fire - but which is which? - and the rattle of small-arms fire followed by eloquent silence. And all of it, to the untrained ear, happening in the next-door room.

My hotel phone was ringing. I had been considering lying underneath the bed, but now I was sitting upright on it with the receiver to my ear.

‘John?’

John? Me? Well, a few people, mainly journalists who don’t know me, do sometimes call me John. So I say, yes, and who’s this? - and in return receive a blast of abuse. My caller is a woman, she’s American, and she’s cross about something.

‘What the fuck d’you mean, who’s this? Don’t pretend you don’t recognize my fucking voice! You are one slimy British bastard, okay? You are an utter weak, cheating - just don’t fucking interrupt, all right?’ - now furiously shouting down my protestations. ‘Just don’t give me that blasé British shit like we’re taking tea in Buckingham fucking Palace! I counted on you, okay? It’s called trust. Just fucking listen. I go to the fucking hairdresser. I pack my shit in a nice little bag. I stand on the sidewalk like a hooker for like two fucking hours. I eat my heart out thinking you’re lying dead in a ditch, and where are you? In fucking bed!’ - her voice drops as a sudden thought strikes her - ‘Are you fucking some woman up there? Because if - stop! - just don’t give me that fucking voice, you British bastard!’

Slowly, but only slowly, I disabuse her. I explain that she has the wrong John; that I’m not actually a John at all, I’m a David - pause for a lively exchange of gunfire - and that John, the real John, whoever he may be, must have checked out - boom-boom again - because the hotel made me a gift of this fine suite earlier in the day. And I’m sorry, I say, I’m really sorry, that she has suffered the humiliation of blasting off at the wrong man. And I reallyappreciate her distress - because by now I’m grateful to be talking to a fellow human being instead of dying alone under the bed in a complimentary hotel suite. And how rotten to be stood up like that, I go on chivalrously - because by now her problem is my problem and I really want us to be friends. And perhaps the real John has a perfectly sound reason for not appearing, I suggest, because after all, in this town anything can happen at any moment, can’t it? - boom-boom again.

And she says, it sure as hell can, David, and why had I got two names anyway? So I tell her that too, and ask where she’s calling from, to which she says the bar in the basement, and her John’s a British writer too, isn’t that really weird, and her name is Jenny - or maybe it’s Ginny, or Penny, because I’m not hearing everything rationally amid the boom-booms. And why don’t I come on down to the bar and we can have a drink together?

To which, prevaricating, I say, what about the real John?

And she says, oh fuck John, he’ll be all right, he always is.

Anything is better than lying on or under my bed and being bombarded. Because her voice, once calmed, is quite agreeable. Because I’m lonely and scared. And after that I have only bad excuses to offer. I put on some clothes and go downstairs. And because I hate lifts, and because by now I’m feeling shifty about my true motives, I dawdle and take the staircase. And by the time I reach the bar in the basement, it’s empty apart from two drunk French arms dealers, the barman and that old parrot who I think must be male - but who knows? - working on his repertoire of ballistic effects.

Back in England, I am more than ever determined that The Little Drummer Girl is to be a movie. My sister Charlotte must play the part of Charlie she inspired. Warner Brothers buy the rights and sign up George Roy Hill of Butch Cassidy fame. I put her name forward. Hill expresses enthusiasm, meets her, likes her. He will talk to the studio. The part goes to Diane Keaton, which may be as well. As George himself, not a man known to mince his words, later put it:

‘David, I fucked up your movie.’