Don’t be beastly to your Secret Service - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

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

Chapter 1. Don't be beastly to your Secret Service

‘I know what you are,’ cries Denis Healey, a former British Defence Secretary in the Labour interest, at a private party to which we have both been invited, his hand outstretched as he wades towards me from the doorway. ‘You’re a communist spy, that’s what you are, admit it.’

So I admit it, as good chaps admit everything in these cases. And everybody laughs, my slightly startled host included. And I laugh too, because I’m a good chap and can take a joke as well as the next man, and because Denis Healey may be a Big Beast in the Labour Party and a political brawler, but he’s also a considerable scholar and humanist, I admire him, and he’s a couple of drinks ahead of me.

‘You bastard, Cornwell,’ a middle-aged MI6 officer, once my colleague, yells down the room at me as a bunch of Washington insiders gather for a diplomatic reception hosted by the British Ambassador. ‘You utter bastard.’ He wasn’t expecting to meet me, but now he has done he’s glad of the opportunity to tell me what he thinks of me for insulting the honour of the Service - our fucking Service, for fuck’s sake! - and for making clowns of men and women who love their country and can’t answer back. He is standing in front of me in the hunched position of a man about to let fly, and if diplomatic hands hadn’t gentled him back a step the next morning’s press would have had a field day.

The cocktail chatter gradually picks up again. But not before I have established that the book that has got under his skin is not The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, but its successor The Looking Glass War, which tells a bleak story of a British-Polish agent sent on a mission into East Germany and left to rot. Unhappily, East Germany had been part of my accuser’s parish in the days when we had worked together. It crosses my mind to tell him that Allen Dulles, recently retired Director of the CIA, has declared the book to be a lot closer to reality than its predecessor, but I fear that will only compound his fury.

‘Heartless, aren’t we? Heartless incompetents! Thanks a million!’

My furious ex-colleague is not the only one. In less fiery tones the same reproach has been made to me repeatedly over the last five decades, not as any sinister or concerted effort, but as the refrain of hurt men and women who consider they are doing a necessary job.

‘Why pick on us? You know how we are really.’ Or more nastily: ‘Now that you’ve made your pile out of us, perhaps you’ll give us a rest for a bit.’

And always, somewhere, the hangdog reminder that the Service can’t answer back; that it is defenceless against bad propaganda; that its successes must go unsung; that it can be known only by its failures.

‘We are definitely not as our host here describes us,’ says Sir Maurice Oldfield severely to Sir Alec Guinness over lunch.

Oldfield is a former Chief of the Secret Service who was later hung out to dry by Margaret Thatcher, but at the time of our meeting he is just another old spy in retirement.

‘I’ve always wanted to meet Sir Alec,’ he told me in his homey, north-country voice when I invited him. ‘Ever since I sat opposite him on the train going up from Winchester. I’d have got into conversation with him if I’d had the nerve.’

Guinness is about to play my secret agent George Smiley in the BBC’s television adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and wishes to savour the company of a real old spy. But the lunch does not proceed as smoothly as I had hoped. Over the hors d’oeuvres, Oldfield extols the ethical standards of his old Service and implies, in the nicest way, that ‘young David here’ has besmirched its good name. Guinness, a former naval officer, who from the moment of meeting Oldfield has appointed himself to the upper echelons of the Secret Service, can only shake his head sagely and agree. Over the Dover sole, Oldfield takes his thesis a step further:

‘It’s young David and his like,’ he declares across the table to Guinness while ignoring me sitting beside him, ‘that make it that much harder for the Service to recruit decent officers and sources. They read his books and they’re put off. It’s only natural.’

To which Guinness lowers his eyelids and shakes his head in a deploring sort of way, while I pay the bill.

‘You should join the Athenaeum, David,’ Oldfield says kindly, implying that the Athenaeum will somehow make a better person of me. ‘I’ll sponsor you myself. There. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?’ And to Guinness, as the three of us stand on the threshold of the restaurant: ‘A pleasure indeed, Alec. An honour, I must say. We shall be in touch very shortly, I’m sure.’

‘We shall indeed,’ Guinness replies devoutly, as the two old spies shake hands.

Unable apparently to get enough of our departing guest, Guinness gazes fondly after him as he pounds off down the pavement: a small, vigorous gentleman of purpose, striding along with his umbrella thrust ahead of him as he disappears into the crowd.

‘How about another cognac for the road?’ Guinness suggests, and we have hardly resumed our places before the interrogation begins:

‘Those very vulgar cufflinks. Do all our spies wear them?’

No, Alec, I think Maurice just likes vulgar cufflinks.

‘And those loud orange suede boots with crêpe soles. Are they for stealth?’

I think they’re just for comfort actually, Alec. Crêpe squeaks.

‘Then tell me this.’ He has grabbed an empty tumbler. Tipping it to an angle, he flicks at it with his thick fingertip. ‘I’ve seen people do this before’ - making a show of peering meditatively into the tumbler while he continues to flick it - ‘and I’ve seen people do this’ - now rotating the finger round the rim in the same contemplative vein. ‘But I’ve never seen people do this before’ - inserting his finger into the tumbler and passing it round the inside. ‘Do you think he’s looking for dregs of poison?’

Is he being serious? The child in Guinness has never been more serious in its life. Well, I suppose if it was dregs he was looking for, he’d have drunk the poison by then, I suggest. But he prefers to ignore me.

It is a matter of entertainment history that Oldfield’s suede boots, crêpe-soled or other, and his rolled umbrella thrust forward to feel out the path ahead, became essential properties for Guinness’ portrayal of George Smiley, old spy in a hurry. I haven’t checked on the cufflinks recently, but I have a memory that our director thought them a little overdone and persuaded Guinness to trade them in for something less flashy.

The other legacy of our lunch was less enjoyable, if artistically more creative. Oldfield’s distaste for my work - and, I suspect, for myself - struck deep root in Guinness’ thespian soul, and he was not above reminding me of it when he felt the need to rack up George Smiley’s sense of personal guilt; or, as he liked to imply, mine.

For the last hundred years and more, our British spies have conducted a distraught and sometimes hilarious love-hate affair with their obstreperous novelists. Like the novelists themselves they want the image, they want the glamour, but don’t ask them to put up with derision or negative reviews. In the early 1900s, spy writers ranging in quality from Erskine Childers to William Le Queux and E. Phillips Oppenheim whipped up such an anti-German furore that they may fairly claim to have assisted at the birth of an established security service in the first place. Until then gentlemen supposedly did not read other gentlemen’s letters; even if in reality a lot of gentlemen did. With the war of 1914-18 came the novelist Somerset Maugham, British secret agent, and by most accounts not a very good one. When Winston Churchill complained that his Ashenden broke the Official Secrets Act,* Maugham, with the threat of a homosexual scandal hanging over him, burned fourteen unpublished stories and held off publication of the rest till 1928.

Compton Mackenzie, novelist, biographer and Scottish nationalist, was less easily cowed. Invalided out of the army in the First World War, he transferred to MI6 and became a competent head of British counter-intelligence in neutral Greece. However, he too often found his orders and superiors absurd and, as writers will, he had his fun of them. In 1932 he was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act and fined £100 for his autobiographical Greek Memories, a book that was indeed stuffed with outrageous indiscretions. Far from learning his lesson, he wreaked his vengeance a year later with the satirical Water on the Brain. I have heard that in Mackenzie’s file at MI5 there is a letter in enormous type addressed to the Director General and signed in the traditional green ink of the Chief of the Secret Service.

‘Worst of all,’ writes the Chief to his brother-in-arms on the other side of St James’s Park, ‘Mackenzie has revealed the actual symbols employed in Secret Service correspondence,* some of which are still in use.’ Mackenzie’s ghost must be rubbing his hands in glee.

But the most impressive of MI6’s literary defectors must surely be Graham Greene, though I doubt whether he knew quite how close he came to following Mackenzie to the Old Bailey. One of my fondest memories of the late fifties is sharing a coffee with the MI5 lawyer in the Security Service’s excellent canteen. He was a benign, pipe-smoking fellow, more family solicitor than bureaucrat, but that morning he was deeply troubled. An advance copy of Our Man in Havana had arrived on his desk, and he was halfway into it. When I said I envied him his luck, he sighed and shook his head. That fellow Greene, he said, would have to be prosecuted. Using information gained as a wartime officer of MI6, he had accurately portrayed the relationship between a head of station in a British Embassy and an agent in the field. He would have to go to jail.

‘And it’s a good book,’ he complained. ‘It’s a damned good book. And that’s the whole trouble.’

I combed the newspapers for news of Greene’s arrest, but he remained at large. Perhaps MI5’s barons had decided after all that it was better to laugh than cry. For their act of clemency, Greene rewarded them twenty years later with The Human Factor, which portrayed them not merely as boobies but as murderers. But MI6 must have sent a warning shot across his bows. In the foreword to The Human Factor he is careful to assure us that he has not infringed the Official Secrets Act. Dig out an early copy of Our Man in Havana and you will find a similar disclaimer.

But history suggests that our sins are eventually forgotten. Mackenzie ended his days with a knighthood, Greene with the Order of Merit.

‘In your new novel, sir,’ an earnest American journalist asks me, ‘you have a man saying of your central character that he would not have become a traitor if he had been able to write. Can you tell me, please, what would have become of you, if you had not been able to write?’

Searching for a safe answer to this dangerous question, I wonder whether our secret services should not be grateful to their literary defectors after all. Compared with the hell we might have raised by other means, writing was as harmless as playing with our bricks. How much our poor beleaguered spies must be wishing that Edward Snowden had done the novel instead.

So what should I have replied to my enraged ex-colleague at the diplomatic party who looked as if he was about to knock me down? No good pointing out that in some books I have painted British Intelligence as a more competent organization than I had ever known it to be in real life. Or that one of its most senior officers described The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as ‘the only bloody double-agent operation that ever worked’. Or that, in describing the nostalgic war games of an isolated British department in the novel that so angered him, I might have been attempting something a bit more ambitious than a crude assault on his Service. And Heaven help me were I to maintain that if you are a novelist struggling to explore a nation’s psyche, its Secret Service is not an unreasonable place to look. I would be flat on my back before I came to the main verb.

As to his Service being unable to answer back, well I would guess there is not a spy agency anywhere in the Western world that has enjoyed more mollycoddling from its domestic media than ours. Embedded scarcely covers it. Our systems of censorship, whether voluntary or imposed by vague and draconian legislation, our skills in artful befriending and the British public’s collective submission to wholesale surveillance of dubious legality are the envy of every spook in the free and unfree world.

No good either my pointing to the many ‘approved’ memoirs of former members that portray the Service in the clothes in which it likes to be admired; or to the ‘official histories’ that draw such a forgiving veil over its more heinous misdeeds; or to the numberless cooked-up articles in our national newspapers that result from much cosier luncheons than the one I enjoyed with Maurice Oldfield.

Or how about suggesting to my furious friend that a writer who treats professional spies as fallible human beings like the rest of us is performing a modest social service - even, God help us, a democratic function, since in Britain our secret services are still, for better or worse, the spiritual home of our political, social and industrial elite?

For that, dear former colleague, is the limit of my disloyalty. And that, dear departed Lord Healey, is the limit of my communism which, come to think of it, can’t be said of you in your younger days.

It’s hard to convey, half a century on, the atmosphere of mistrust that pervaded Whitehall’s corridors of secret power in the late fifties and early sixties. I was twenty-five when, in 1956, I was formally inducted into MI5 as a junior officer. Any younger, they told me, and I wouldn’t have been eligible. Five, as we called it, prided itself on its maturity. Alas, no amount of maturity protected it from recruiting such luminaries as Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt and the other sad traitors of that period whose names linger like half-forgotten football stars in the British public memory.

I had entered the Service with high expectations. My intelligence exploits to date, trivial as they were, had left me with an appetite for more. My case officers had been uniformly agreeable, efficient and considerate. They had spoken to my sense of calling and revived my lapsed public schoolboy’s duty of pain. As a National Service intelligence officer in Austria, I had lived in awe of the shadowy civilians who periodically descended on our humdrum encampment in Graz and invested it with a mystique it otherwise sadly lacked. It was only when I entered their citadel that I came smartly to earth.

Spying on a decaying British Communist Party twenty-five thousand strong that had to be held together by MI5 informants did not meet my aspirations. Neither did the double standards by which the Service nurtured its own. MI5, for better or worse, was the moral arbiter of the private lives of Britain’s civil servants and scientists. Under the vetting procedures of the day, homosexuals and other perceived deviants were held to be vulnerable to blackmail, and consequently debarred from secret work. But the Service seemed quite content to ignore the homosexuals in its own ranks, and its Director General openly cohabiting with his secretary during the week and his wife at weekends, even to the point of leaving written instructions for the night duty officer in case his wife called up wanting to know where he was. Yet God help the registry typist whose skirt was deemed too short or too tight, or the married desk officer who gave her the eye.

While the upper echelons of the Service were staffed by ageing survivors of the glory days of 1939-45, its middle order comprised former colonial police and district officers left over from Britain’s dwindling empire. Experienced as they might be in quelling unruly natives who had the temerity to want their countries back, they were less at ease when it came to guarding the mother country they barely knew. The British working classes were as volatile and unknowable to them as were once the rioting Dervishes. Trade unions in their eyes were nothing but communist front organizations.

Meanwhile, young spy hunters such as myself, thirsting for stronger fare, were ordered not to waste their time looking for Soviet-controlled ‘illegals’, since it was known on unassailable authority that no such spies were operating on British soil. Known to whom, by whom, I never learned. Four years were enough. In 1960 I applied for a transfer to MI6 or, as my disgruntled employers had it, to ‘those shits across the park’.

But let me in parting acknowledge one debt of gratitude to MI5 that I can never sufficiently repay. The most rigorous instruction in prose writing that I ever received came, not from any schoolteacher or university tutor, least of all from a writing school. It came from the classically educated senior officers on the top floor of MI5’s headquarters in Curzon Street, Mayfair, who seized on my reports with gleeful pedantry, heaping contempt on my dangling clauses and gratuitous adverbs, scoring the margins of my deathless prose with such comments as redundant - omit - justify - sloppy - do you really mean this? No editor I have since encountered was so exacting, or so right.

By the spring of 1961 I had completed the MI6 initiation course, which equipped me with skills I never needed and quickly forgot. At the concluding ceremony the Service’s head of training, a rugged, pink-faced veteran in tweeds, told us with tears in his eyes that we were to go home and await orders. They might take some time. The reason - which he vowed he had never dreamed he would have to utter - was that a longstanding officer of the Service, who had enjoyed its unstinted trust, had been unmasked as a Soviet double agent. His name was George Blake.

The scale of Blake’s betrayal remains, even by the standards of the period, monumental: literally hundreds of British agents - Blake himself could no longer calculate how many - betrayed; covert audio operations deemed vital to the national security, such as, but not exclusively, the Berlin audio tunnel, blown before they were launched; and the entire breakdown of MI6’s personnel, safe houses, order of battle and outstations across the globe. Blake, a most capable field agent in both interests, was also a God-seeker, who by the time of his unmasking had espoused Christianity, Judaism and communism in that order. Imprisoned at Wormwood Scrubs, from which he later famously escaped, he gave lessons to his fellow inmates in the Holy Koran.

Two years after receiving the unsettling news of George Blake’s treachery, I was serving as a Second Secretary (Political) at the British Embassy in Bonn. Summoning me to his office late one evening, my Head of Station informed me, strictly for my own information, of what every Englishman would be reading in his evening newspaper the next day: that Kim Philby, MI6’s brilliant former head of counter-intelligence, once tipped to become Chief of the Service, was also a Russian spy and, as we were only gradually allowed to know, had been one since 1937.

Later in this book you will read an account by Nicholas Elliott, Philby’s friend, confidant and colleague in war and peace, of their final encounter in Beirut that led to Philby’s partial confession. And it may cross your mind that Elliott’s account is mysteriously short on outrage or even indignation. The reason is very simple. Spies are not policemen, neither are they quite the moral realists they like to think they are. If your mission in life is to win over traitors to your cause, you can hardly complain when one of your own, even if you loved him as a brother and cherished colleague, and shared every aspect of your secret work with him, turns out to have been obtained by someone else. It was a lesson I had taken to heart by the time I wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. And when I came to write Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it was Kim Philby’s murky lamp that lit my path.

Spying and novel writing are made for each other. Both call for a ready eye for human transgression and the many routes to betrayal. Those of us who have been inside the secret tent never really leave it. If we didn’t share its habits before we entered it, we will share them ever after. For proof of this we need look no further than Graham Greene, and the anecdotal account of his self-imposed game of foxes with the FBI. Perhaps it is recorded by one of his disobliging biographers, but better not to look.

All through his later life, Greene, the novelist and former spy, was convinced that he was on the FBI blacklist of subversive pro-communists. And he had good reason, given his numerous visits to the Soviet Union, his continuing and outspoken loyalty to his friend and fellow spy Kim Philby, and his futile exertions to reconcile the Roman Catholic and communist causes. When the Berlin Wall went up, Greene had himself photographed posing on the wrong side of it, while telling the world he’d rather be there than here. Indeed, Greene’s aversion to the United States and his fear of the consequences of his radical pronouncements reached such heights that he insisted that any meeting with his US publisher be conducted on the Canadian side of the border.

Came a day, then, when he was at last able to demand sight of his FBI file. It contained one entry only: that he had kept company with the politically erratic British ballerina Margot Fonteyn, when she was fighting the doomed cause of her paralysed and faithless husband, Roberto Arias.

Spying did not introduce me to secrecy. Evasion and deception were the necessary weapons of my childhood. In adolescence we are all spies of a sort, but I was a veteran. When the secret world came to claim me, it felt like a coming home. Why this was so is best left to the later chapter called ‘Son of the author’s father’.