The wrong horse’s mouth - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

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

Chapter 23. The wrong horse’s mouth

You would not, I imagine, if you were on the lookout for the inside story of Grand Prix racing, choose for your source a junior mechanic with a hyperactive imagination and zero experience of the race track. Yet that is a fair analogy of what it felt like to be appointed, overnight and solely on the strength of my fictions, to the status of guru on all matters of secret intelligence.

When the mantle was first thrust on me, I resisted it on the very real grounds that I was forbidden by the Official Secrets Act to admit that I had so much as scented the wind of intelligence work. The fear that my former Service, already regretting that it had passed my books for publication, might in its disgruntlement decide to make an example of me was never far from my thoughts, though Heaven knows I had little enough in the way of secret knowledge to reveal. But more important to me, I suspect, even if I didn’t admit it to myself, was my writer’s amour-propre. I wanted my stories to be read not as the disguised revelations of a literary defector but as works of imagination that owed only a nod to the reality that had spawned them.

Meanwhile, my claims never to have set foot inside the secret world rang more hollow by the day, thanks not least to my former colleagues who had no such reservations about blowing my cover. And when the truth overtook me, and I feebly protested that I was a writer who had once happened to be a spy rather than a spy who had turned to writing, the broad message I got back was, forget it: once a spy, always a spy, and if I didn’t believe my own fictions, other people did, so live with it.

And live with it I did, like it or not. For years on end as it seems to me now - for my golden years, if you like - barely a week went by but a reader wrote asking how he or she could become a spy, to which I would primly answer: write to your MP or to the Foreign Office or, if you are still at school, consult your careers adviser.

But the reality was, in those days you couldn’t apply, and you weren’t meant to. You couldn’t just Google MI5 or MI6 or GCHQ, Britain’s once ultra-secret codebreaking agency, but you can now. There were no advertisements on the front page of the Guardian telling you that if you are able to talk three people in a room into doing what you want them to do, then maybe spying is for you. You had to be spotted. If you applied you could be enemy, whereas if you were spotted, you couldn’t possibly be. And we all know how well that worked.

And to be spotted you had to be born lucky. You had to have gone to a good school, preferably a private one, and to a university, preferably Oxbridge. Ideally, there should already be spies in your family background, or at least a soldier or two. Failing that, at some point unknown to you, you had to catch the eye of a headmaster, tutor or dean who, having judged you a suitable candidate for recruitment, summoned you to his rooms, closed the door and offered you a glass of sherry and an opportunity to meet interesting friends in London.

And if you said yes, you were interested in these interesting friends, then a letter to you might arrive in an eye-catching double-sealed pale-blue envelope with an embossed official crest, inviting you to present yourself at an address Somewhere in Whitehall, and your life as a spy might or might not have begun. In my day the invitation included lunch in a cavernous Pall Mall club with an intimidating admiral who asked me whether I was an indoor man or an outdoor man. I am still wondering how to reply.

If aspiring spies took up the larger part of my fan mail in those days, victims of persecution by secret forces ran a close second. The desperate appeals had a certain uniformity. My writers were being shadowed, their phones were being tapped, their cars and houses bugged, neighbours suborned. Their letters were arriving a day late, their husbands, wives and lovers were reporting on them, they couldn’t park their cars without getting a ticket. The taxman was after them and there were men who didn’t look at all like real workmen doing something to the drains outside the house, they’d been loitering there all week and achieved nothing. It would have served no useful purpose to tell my correspondents that just possibly they were right on every count.

But there were other times when my spurious identity as a master spy came home to roost with a vengeance, such as when, in 1982, a bunch of youthful Polish dissidents described as ‘members of a Polish insurgent home army’ took charge of their country’s Embassy in Bern, where I happened to have studied, and settled themselves in for what turned out to be a three-day siege.

It was the middle of the night when my phone rang in London. The caller was an illustrious gentleman of the Swiss political hierarchy with whom I had struck up a chance acquaintance. He needed my advice promptly in strict confidence, he said. As did his colleagues. He sounded unusually sonorous, but perhaps I was a bit slow waking up. He held no brief for communists, he said. In fact he loathed the ground they walked on. He assumed I did. Nevertheless, the Polish government, communist or not, was legitimate and its Embassy in Bern was entitled to the full protection of its host country.

Was I with him so far? I was. Good. Because a group of young Polish men had just taken over Poland’s Embassy in Bern at pistol point, mercifully without thus far firing a single shot. Was I still listening? I was. And these young men were anti-communists, and in any other circumstance to be cheered on. But this was no time to indulge one’s personal preferences, was it, David?

No. It wasn’t.

So the boys had to be disarmed, didn’t they? They had to be got out of the Embassy and out of the country as fast and discreetly as possible. And since I knew all about these things, would I please come and get them out?

In a voice that must have sounded near-hysterical, I vowed to my caller that I had no earthly expertise in such matters, knew not a word of Polish, knew nothing of Polish resistance movements, and less than nothing about the arts of sweet-talking hostage-takers, Polish, communist, non-communist or other. Having thus pleaded my unsuitability any way I could, I think I suggested that he and his colleagues find themselves a Polish-speaking priest. If that failed, haul the British Ambassador in Bern out of bed and formally request the assistance of our Special Forces.

Whether he and his colleagues followed my advice is also something I shall never know. My illustrious friend never told me how the story had ended, though press reports indicate that Swiss police stormed the Embassy, seized the four rebels and freed the hostages. When I bumped into him half a year later on the ski slopes and taxed him about the matter, he replied airily that it had all been a harmless joke: which I took to mean that, whatever deal had been struck by the Swiss authorities, it was not to be shared with a mere foreigner.

And then there was the President of Italy.

When the Italian Cultural Attaché in London called to inform me that President Cossiga of Italy was a fan, and wished to invite me to lunch at the Quirinal Palace in Rome, I enjoyed a glow of pride such as few writers are privileged to feel. Did I make any move to inform myself of the President’s political posture or his standing in the eyes of his people at this juncture? I have no memory of doing so. I was walking on air.

So might there possibly be a book of mine, I enquired shyly of the Cultural Attaché, that the President particularly admired? Or did his approval perhaps cover my entire oeuvre? The Attaché would enquire. A title was duly named: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

So would His Excellency the President prefer the English version, or might he, for ease of reading, prefer a copy in Italian? The reply went straight to my heart: the President preferred to read me in my native tongue.

Next day I took a copy of the chosen work to the dernier cri of London’s bookbinders, Messrs Sangorski & Sutcliffe, to be encased, regardless of cost, in finest calfskin - royal blue, so far as I remember, with the author’s name done rather prominently in gold leaf. The effect - since the interiors of British books in those days tended to appear shabby even when brand new - was of some illustrious old manuscript rebound.

I endowed the title page with my inscription: to Francesco Cossiga, President of the Italian Republic. And then my pen name, writ large. And probably I added my homage, or my profound respects, or eternal allegiance. And I’m sure that, before I put whatever I put, I spent a lot of time thinking of an appropriate form of words, and practising them on a bit of spare paper before committing them to history.

And so, with the bound book in hand, I set off for Rome.

I believe the hotel that had been chosen for me was called the Grand, and I’m sure I slept poorly and made nothing of my breakfast and spent a lot of time in front of a mirror worrying about my hair, which in stress has a way of growing sideways. And probably I purchased a vastly overpriced silk tie from one of the hotel’s little glass boutiques to which the concierge had the key.

And well before the time appointed I was hovering on the hotel’s forecourt expecting at the very most a public relations person with a car and driver. Certainly nothing had prepared me for the resplendent limousine with curtained windows that drew up at the hotel entrance, or the troop of white-clad motorcycle policemen with blue lights winking and sirens wailing that attended it. All for me. I got in, and in less time than I might have wished, got out again, to a bank of flashing cameras. On the great steps, as I ascended them, serious men in medieval tights and spectacles came to attention as I passed.

It is necessary to understand that I have by now taken leave of everything we call reality. The occasion, the place, are a time warp to this day. Now I am standing in an enormous room, alone, clutching my Sangorski-bound book. Who is equal to these dimensions? The question is answered by a man in a grey suit slowly descending a magnificent stone staircase. He is the quintessential President of Italy. His extreme elegance, his caressing words of welcome, softly spoken in Italian-English as he advances on me with his hands outstretched in pleasure, exude confidence, reassurance and power.

‘Mr le Carré. All my life. Every word you have written. Every syllable, in my memory’ - a sigh of pleasure - ‘welcome, welcome to the Quirinal.’

I stammer my thanks. A misty army of middle-aged men in grey suits assembles behind us, but out of respect they keep their distance.

‘How about, before we go upstairs, you allow I show you certain features of the Palace?’ my host enquires in the same liquid voice.

I allow. Side by side, we progress along a superb corridor with tall windows overlooking the eternal city. At a respectful distance, the grey army soundlessly keeps pace with us. My host pauses for a moment of light humour:

‘Here to our right side, we see this little room. It is where we were keeping Galileo while he was waiting to change his mind.’

I chuckle. He chuckles. We walk on and stop again, this time before a great window. All Rome is at our feet.

‘And here to our left side is the Vatican. We did not always agree with the Vatican.’

More wise smiles. We round a corner. For a moment we are all alone. In two swift gestures, I wipe the sweat from Sangorski’s calfskin and hand it to my host.

I brought you this, I say.

He takes the book, smiles graciously, admires it, opens it, reads my inscription. He hands me back the book.

‘Very beautiful,’ he replies. ‘Why don’t you give it to the President?’

Of the lunch, I remember little. That is to say, I have no recollection of what we ate or drank, but no doubt it was exquisite. We sat at a long table, thirty-odd of us including the misty grey army, in a medieval penthouse of celestial beauty. President Francesco Cossiga, a depressed-looking man in tinted spectacles, sat with bowed shoulders at its centre. Despite the assurances of his Cultural Attaché in London, he appeared to have little English. A lady interpreter was on hand to demonstrate her skills, which became redundant when we settled on French. It was soon evident that she wasn’t interpreting for the two of us alone, but for the grey army either side of us.

I don’t remember handing over the calf-bound book a second time, though I must have done. Only the general topic of our conversation remains with me, since it was not about literature or art or architecture or politics, but spies, and it came in a series of sudden and unpredictable charges each time Cossiga raised his head and stared at me with unsettling intensity through his tinted spectacles.

Could societies do without spies altogether? he wished to know. What did I think? How was a supposed democracy to control its spies? How should Italy control them? - as if Italy were a separate case, not a democracy but just Italy in italics. What was my opinion, bluntly, in my own words please, of the Italian intelligence services en général? Were they worth their salt? Were they a negative force or a positive one, would I say?

To all of which I had, and still have, no answer worth a bean. I knew nothing about the workings of the Italian intelligence services. I noticed as I trotted out such wisdoms as I could muster that every time the President fired a question at me, the grey army around us stopped eating and raised their heads as if to the command of a conductor’s baton, only resuming when I had ground to a halt.

Suddenly the President had gone. Perhaps he’d had enough of me. Perhaps he had the world to run. He bounded to his feet, vouchsafed me another piercing glance, shook my hand and left me to my fellow guests.

Servants ushered us to an adjoining room where coffee and liqueurs awaited. Still nobody spoke. Seated in soft chairs round a low table, the grey-suited men exchanged only a muttered word with one another, as if they feared to be overheard; and with me, no word at all. Then, one by one, with a handshake and a nod, each took his leave.

It wasn’t till I returned to London that I was informed, by people who should know, that I had lunched with the assembled chieftains of Italy’s many intelligence services. Cossiga had evidently thought they could pick up a few hints from the horse’s mouth. Mortified, embarrassed, feeling a fool, I made enquiries about my host, only to learn what I should have learned before I set out for Messrs Sangorski & Sutcliffe.

President Cossiga, having on his election declared himself the father of his nation, had become its scourge. He had lashed out so vigorously against former colleagues of left and right that he had acquired the nickname ‘pickaxe-man’. He was given to maintaining that Italy was a country of the insane.

A radically conservative Roman Catholic who saw communism as the anti-Christ, Cossiga went to his reward in 2010. In old age, according to his obituary in the Guardian, he got battier still. It is not recorded whether he ever benefited from my advice, whatever that was.

Mrs Thatcher also invited me to lunch. Her office wished to recommend me for a medal, and I had declined. I had not voted for her, but that fact had nothing to do with my decision. I felt, as I feel today, that I was not cut out for our honours system, that it represents much of what I most dislike about our country and that we were better apart, and finally, if there has to be a finally, that since I had no regard for our British literary commentariat, I consequently had none for its selections, even if they included me. In my letter of reply, I took care to assure the Prime Minister’s office that my churlishness did not spring from any personal or political animosity, offered my thanks and compliments to the Prime Minister, and assumed I would hear no more.

I was wrong. In a second letter her office struck a more intimate note. Lest I was regretting a decision taken in heat, the writer wished me to know that the door to an honour was still open. I replied, equally courteously I hope, that as far as I was concerned the door was firmly shut, and would remain so in any similar contingency. Again, my thanks. Again, my compliments to the Prime Minister. And again I assumed the matter was closed, until a third letter arrived, inviting me to lunch.

There were six tables set in the dining room of 10 Downing Street that day, but I only remember ours, which had Mrs Thatcher at its head and the Dutch Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers on her right, and myself in a tight new grey suit on her left. The year must have been 1982. I was just back from the Middle East, Lubbers had just been appointed. Our other three guests remain a pink blob to me. I assumed, for reasons that today escape me, that they were industrialists from the north. Neither do I remember any opening exchanges between the six of us, but perhaps they had happened over cocktails before we sat down. But I do remember Mrs Thatcher turning to the Dutch Prime Minister, and acquainting him with my distinction.

‘Now, Mr Lubbers,’ she announced in a tone to prepare him for a nice surprise. ‘This is Mr Cornwell, but you will know him better as the writer John le Carré.’

Leaning forward, Mr Lubbers took a close look at me. He had a youthful face, almost a playful one. He smiled, I smiled: really friendly smiles.

‘No,’ he said.

And sat back in his chair, still smiling.

But Mrs Thatcher, it is well known, did not lightly take no for an answer.

‘Oh, come, Mr Lubbers. You’ve heard of John le Carré. He wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and …’ - fumbling slightly - ‘... other wonderful books.’

Lubbers, nothing if not a politician, reconsidered his position. Again he leaned forward and took another, longer look at me, as amiable as the first, but more considered, more statesmanlike.

‘No,’ he repeated.

And evidently satisfied that he had made the correct finding, again sat back.

Now it was Mrs Thatcher’s turn to take a long look at me, and I underwent something of what her all-male* cabinet must have experienced when they too incurred her displeasure.

‘Well, Mr Cornwell,’ she said, as to an errant schoolboy who had been brought to account. ‘Since you’re here’ - implying that I had somehow talked my way in - ‘have you anything you wish to say to me?’

Belatedly, it occurred to me that I had indeed something to say to her, if badly. Having recently returned from South Lebanon, I felt obliged to plead the cause of stateless Palestinians. Lubbers listened. The gentlemen from the industrial north listened. But Mrs Thatcher listened more attentively than all of them, and with no sign of the impatience of which she was frequently accused. Even when I had stumbled to the end of my aria, she went on listening before delivering herself of her response.

‘Don’t give me sob stories,’ she ordered me with sudden vehemence, striking the key words for emphasis. ‘Every day people appeal to my emotions. You can’t govern that way. It simply isn’t fair.’

Whereupon, appealing to my emotions, she reminded me that it was the Palestinians who had trained the IRA bombers who had murdered her friend Airey Neave, the British war hero and politician, and her close adviser. After that, I don’t believe we spoke to each other much. I expect that, very sensibly, she preferred to devote herself to Mr Lubbers and her industrialists.

Occasionally I do ask myself whether Mrs Thatcher nevertheless had an ulterior motive in inviting me. Was she, for instance, sizing me up for one of her quangos - those strange quasi-official public bodies that have authority but no power, or is it the other way round?

But I found it hard to imagine what possible use she could have for me - unless of course she wanted guidance from the horse’s mouth on how to sort out her squabbling spies.