Blood and treasure - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

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

Chapter 19. Blood and treasure

In recent years I have acquired a childish aversion to reading anything that is written about me in the press, good, bad or other. But there are occasions when something slips through my defences, as happened one morning in the autumn of 1991 when I opened my Times newspaper to be greeted by my own face glowering up at me. From my sour expression I could tell at once that the text around it wasn’t going to be friendly. Photographic editors know their stuff. A struggling Warsaw theatre, I read, was celebrating its post-communist freedom by putting on a stage version of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. But the rapacious le Carré [see photograph] wanted a whacking £150 per performance: ‘The price of freedom, we suppose.’

I took another look at the photograph and saw exactly the sort of fellow who does indeed go round preying on struggling Polish theatres. Grasping. Unsavoury appetites. Just look at those eyebrows. I had by now ceased to enjoy my breakfast.

Keep calm and call your agent. I fail on the first count, succeed on the second. My literary agent’s name is Rainer. In what the novelists call a quavering voice, I read the article aloud to him. Has he, I suggest delicately - might he possibly, just this once, is it at all conceivable? - on this occasion been a tad too zealous on my behalf?

Rainer is emphatic. Quite the reverse. Since the Poles are still in the recovery ward after the collapse of communism, he has been a total pussycat. To prove it, he recites the terms he negotiated with the Polish theatre. We are not charging the theatre £150 per performance, he assures me, but a measly £26, the minimum standard rate, or have I forgotten? Well yes, actually, I have. In addition to which we’ve thrown in the rights for free. In short, a sweetheart deal, David, a deliberate helping hand to a Polish theatre in time of need. Great, I say, bewildered and inwardly seething.

Keep calm and fax the editor of The Times. He is a man whose life and writing I have since learned to admire greatly, but in 1991 I was less aware of his virtues. His response is not soothing. It is lofty. Not to put too fine an edge on it, it is infuriating. He sees no great harm in the piece, he says. He suggests that a man in my fortunate position should take the rough with the smooth. This is not advice I am prepared to accept. But who to turn to?

Why, of course: the man who owns the newspaper, Rupert Murdoch, my old buddy!

Well, not exactly buddy. I had met Murdoch socially on a couple of occasions, though I doubted whether he remembered them. The first was at Boulestin’s restaurant in the mid-eighties, where I was lunching with another literary agent of the time, and in walked Murdoch. My agent made the introductions, Murdoch joined us for a dry martini. He was my age exactly. His war to the death with Fleet Street’s print unions was gathering heat. We discussed it a bit, then I asked him in a casual way - maybe it was the martini talking - why he had broken with tradition. In the old days, I said lightly, needy Brits had set out for Australia to seek their fortunes. Now an Australian who wasn’t needy had come to Britain to seek his. What had gone wrong? It was an asinine question at the best of times, but Murdoch leapt at it.

‘I’ll tell you why,’ he retorted. ‘It’s because you’re wood from here up!’

And he made a slicing gesture across his throat to show where the wood began.

At our second meeting, which took place in a private house, he had treated the table in the frankest terms to his negative views on the collapse of the Soviet Union. At the end of the evening he had generously handed me his card: phone, fax, home address. Any time, and the phone rings right on his desk.

Keep calm and fax Murdoch. I have three conditions, I say: number one, a generous apology prominently printed in The Times; number two, a handsome donation to the struggling Polish theatre. And number three - was that dry martini still talking? - lunch. Next morning his reply was lying on the floor beneath my fax machine:

‘Your terms accepted. Rupert.’

The Savoy Grill in those days had a kind of upper level for moguls: red-plush, horseshoe-shaped affairs where in more colourful days gentlemen of money might have entertained their ladies. I breathe the name Murdoch to the maître d’hôtel and am shown to one of the privés. I am early. Murdoch is bang on time.

He is smaller than I remember him, but more pugnacious, and has acquired that hasty waddle and little buck of the pelvis with which great men of affairs advance on one another, hand outstretched, for the cameras. The slant of the head in relation to the body is more pronounced than I remember, and when he wrinkles up his eyes to give me his sunny smile, I have the odd feeling he’s taking aim at me.

We sit down, we face each other. I notice - how can I not? - the unsettling collection of rings on his left hand. We order our food and exchange a couple of banalities. Rupert says he’s sorry about that stuff they wrote about me. Brits, he says, are great penmen, but they don’t always get things right. I say, not at all, and thanks for your sporting response. But enough of small talk. He is staring straight at me and the sunny smile has vanished.

‘Who killed Bob Maxwell?’ he demands.

Robert Maxwell, for those lucky enough not to remember him, was a Czech-born media baron, British parliamentarian and the alleged spy of several nations, including Israel, the Soviet Union and Britain. As a young Czech freedom fighter he had taken part in the Normandy landings, and later earned himself a British army commission and a gallantry medal. After the war, he worked for the Foreign Office in Berlin. He was also a flamboyant liar and rogue of gargantuan proportions and appetites who plundered the pension fund of his own companies to the tune of £440 million, owed around £4 billion that he had no way of repaying, and in November 1991 was found dead in the seas off Tenerife, having apparently fallen from the deck of a lavish private yacht named after his daughter.

Conspiracy theories abounded. To some it was a clear case of suicide by a man ensnared by his own crimes; to others, murder by one of the several intelligence agencies he had supposedly worked for. But which one? Why Murdoch should imagine I know the answer to this question any better than anyone else is beyond me, but I do my best to give satisfaction. Well, Rupert, if we’re really saying it’s not suicide, then probably, for my money, it was the Israelis, I suggest.

‘Why?’

I’ve read the rumours that are flying around, as we all have. I regurgitate them: Maxwell, the long-term agent of Israeli Intelligence, blackmailing his former paymasters; Maxwell, who had traded with the Shining Path in Peru, offering Israeli weapons in exchange for strategic cobalt; Maxwell, threatening to go public unless the Israelis paid up.

But Rupert Murdoch is already on his feet, shaking my hand and saying it was great to meet me again. And maybe he’s as embarrassed as I am, or just bored, because already he’s powering his way out of the room, and great men don’t sign bills, they leave them to their people. Estimated duration of lunch: twenty-five minutes.

But today I wish we’d had our lunch a couple of months later, because by then I would have had a much more interesting theory to offer him about why Bob Maxwell died.

I’m in London, writing about the new Russia, and I want to meet Western carpetbaggers who have joined the gold rush. Somebody has told me Barry is the man I am looking for, and somebody is right. Sooner or later there’s a Barry, and when you find him, you best stick to him like glue. Friend A gives you an introduction to his friend B. Friend B’s sorry he can’t help, but maybe his friend C can. C can’t, but it so happens that D’s in town, so why not give old D a ring, say you’re a pal of C’s and here’s D’s number. And suddenly you’re in the room with the right man.

Barry is a natural-born East Ender who’s made it big in the West End: classless, fast-talking, likes the idea of meeting a writer but doesn’t read a book unless he’s got to, has a reputation for making effortless fortunes fast, and is indeed taking a more than academic interest in the possibility of making a serious killing in the disintegrating Soviet Union. All of which, he tells me, explains why Bob Maxwell called him up one day and told him, as only Bob could, to get his arse round to Bob’s office now, and advise him how to make a Russian fortune inside a week, or Bob would be in serious ordure.

And, yes, it so happens that Barry is free for lunch today, David, so it’s Julia, darling, scrub my afternoon engagements, will you dear, because me and David are slipping round to the Silver Grill, so call up Martha and tell her it’s for two, and a nice quiet corner.

And what’s really important to remember, David, Barry urges me sternly, first in the cab, then again over a nice fillet steak done the way he likes, is the date when Bob Maxwell makes that call to me. It’s July 1991, so it’s four months before his body is found floating in the briny. Got that? Because if you haven’t, you’re going to miss the whole point. All right, then. I’ll begin.

‘I own Mikhail Gorbachev,’ Robert Maxwell announces to Barry as soon as they are sitting head to head in Maxwell’s grandiose penthouse office. ‘And what I want you to do, Barry, is take the yacht’ - meaning the Lady Ghislainefrom which Maxwell later fell to his death, if he wasn’t dead already - ‘and sit on it for three days maximum, then come back here to me with a proposal. Now fuck off.’

And of course there was a nice piece of change in it for Barry too, or he wouldn’t have been sitting there, would he? - a consideration up front for his thoughts, plus a percentage of the action down the line. He doesn’t take the yacht because yachts aren’t his thing, but there’s a place he’s got in the deep countryside where he likes to put his thinking-cap on, and twenty-four hours later, not the three days Bob was on about, he’s back in the penthouse suite with his proposal. Or in point of fact, David, three proposals. And all of them sure-fire winners, all guaranteed to yield very big returns, though not necessarily all at the same rate.

First, Bob, he tells Maxwell, there’s your oil, which is obvious. If Gorby could slip you just one of the state concessions shortly to be on offer in the Caucasus, then you could auction it off to the big oil boys, or lease out the wells for a royalty. Either way, you’d be making a very large killing indeed, Bob—

And the downside? Maxwell interrupts. What’s the fucking downside?

Your downside, Bob, is time, which as you tell me is your big problem. An oil deal that size can’t happen overnight, not even with your pal in the Kremlin pulling the levers, so you won’t have anything to auction for, well—

Not fucking interested. Next?

My next one, Bob, is your scrap metal. And I’m not talking pushing a barrow down Cable Street and yelling up at windows for any old iron. I’m talking the very best top-quality metal ever made, mountains of it, churned out regardless of cost by a command economy gone loco: parks full of rusty tanks, weaponry, clapped-out factories, dud power stations and all the rest of the junk left over from five-year plans, seven-year plans and no-plans-at-all. But in your world market, Bob, priceless raw metal just waiting for somebody like you to come along. And nobody needs to own it but you. You’ll be doing Russia a favour, cleaning the stuff up. A nice letter from our pal at the Kremlin thanking you for your trouble, and a couple of phone calls to people in metals I know, you’re home and dry.

Except what?

Your downside, Bob? Is your cost of collection. Is your high personal visibility at this juncture in your life with the eyes of the world upon you, I’ll put it that way. Because sooner or later somebody over there is going to ask why it’s Bob Maxwell doing the cleaning up, and not someone nice and Russian.

So Maxwell asks impatiently what Barry’s third proposal is. And Barry says: your blood, Bob.

‘Your blood, Bob,’ Barry tells Robert Maxwell, ‘is a very valuable commodity in any market place. But your Russian blood, properly extracted and marketed, is a very serious goldmine indeed. Your Russian citizen is patriotic. When he hears on his radio or television, or reads in his Russian newspaper, that there’s been a national tragedy, be it a little war somewhere, or a train smash, or a plane crash, or an earthquake, or a gas pipe blowing up, or a terrorist blowing up a market place, your Russian doesn’t just sit there, he goes straight down to his nearest hospital and he gives blood. Gives it, Bob. For free. As the good citizen he is. Millions of gallons of it. They queue up, they stand there quietly in line, which they’re used to, and they give free blood. It’s what they do out of the goodness of their Russian hearts. Free.’

Barry pauses over his steak in case I have a question, but none comes to me, perhaps because I have the shivery feeling it’s no longer Robert Maxwell he’s pitching to, it’s me.

‘So given your unlimited supply of Russian blood, free at source,’ Barry resumes, putting on his logistical hat, ‘what else do you need? It’s Russia, so organization is bound to be your first worry. The transfusion service is there, so it’s already collection of a sort, but you’ll have to sharpen it up. Then there’s your distribution. There’s cold storage in every Russian city, so all you’ve got to do is raise the quantity level. Bigger and better storage, more of it. Who funds your operation? The Soviet state does, what’s left of it. The Soviet state, out of the goodness of its heart, improves and modernizes the service nationally, which is overdue, and Gorby gives himself a pat on the back for it. The Soviet exchequer funds the operation centrally, each Republic sends an agreed percentage of its take to a central blood bank - in Moscow, near one of your airports - as a quid pro quo for the funding. What does your central blood bank in Moscow officially use the blood for? Unspecified mega-emergencies nationwide. And what are you using it for? You’ve got a brace of refrigerated 747s working the shuttle between Sheremetyevo and Kennedy airports. You don’t have to buy them. Lease them through me. Ship the blood to New York, have chemists check it for HIV en route, and I know just the boys. Have you got any idea at all what they’re paying out there in the world market for a gallon of Aids-tested, Caucasian blood? I’ll tell you …’

And the downside, Barry? This time it’s me who’s asking, not Maxwell, and Barry is already shaking his head.

‘David, there was not a downside. That blood would have gone like clockwork. I’d be very surprised if it isn’t going like clockwork for somebody at this very minute.’

So why not for Bob?

It’s the date, David, isn’t it? Barry is back to that all-important date he warned me about at the beginning of his story.

‘Summer 1991, remember? Gorby is hanging on to power by his fingernails. The Party’s falling apart at the seams and Yeltsin is after his balls. Come autumn, the Republics are clamouring for their independence, and nobody’s thinking of sending blood to Moscow. More likely they’re thinking Moscow could send a bit of something to the Republics for a change.’

And your friend Bob? I ask.

‘Bob Maxwell wasn’t blind and he wasn’t stupid, David. Once he knew Gorby was done for, he knew blood was off the table and his last chance was gone. If he’d held on for a month, he’d have seen the Soviet Union sunk for ever, and Gorby go down with the ship. Bob knew the game was up, so he didn’t hang about, did he?’

In the novel that I eventually wrote, I used Barry’s idea about marketing Russian blood, but it didn’t play as strongly as I meant it to, perhaps because nobody killed himself on account of it.

But here’s a tailpiece to that twenty-five-minute lunch date with Rupert Murdoch at the Savoy Grill. One of Murdoch’s ex-aides, writing of his former employer’s performance before the British parliamentary committee delving into the phone-hacking conducted by one of his newspapers, described how Murdoch’s advisers had urged him to remove the array of gold rings from his left hand before he informed his audience, with a clot in his voice, that this was the humblest day of his life.