Under deep cover - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

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

Chapter 26. Under deep cover

It’s only a few years since we said our goodbyes to him, but I may not tell you when or where. I may not tell you whether we burned or buried him, whether we did it in the town or in the country, or whether his name was Tom, Dick or Harry, or the funeral was Christian or of another sort.

I will call him Harry.

Harry’s wife was at the funeral, standing very straight, the same wife he had had for fifty years. She had been spat on in the fish queue for him, jeered at by neighbours for him and had her house burgled by the police who thought they were doing their duty by shaking out the local Communist Party firebrand. There was a child there too, now grown, who had suffered similar humiliations at school and later. But I may not tell you whether this was a boy or a girl child, or whether he or she has found a safe corner in the world Harry believed he was protecting. The wife, now widow, stood as steady as she had always done under pressure, but the grown-up child was crumpled with grief, to the mother’s evident contempt. A life of hardship had taught her to value bearing, and she expected it of her offspring.

I went to the funeral because long ago I had had the management of Harry, which was a sacred trust as well as a delicate one since all his energies from late childhood onward had been directed at frustrating his country’s perceived enemies by becoming one of them. Harry had absorbed the Party’s dogma until it was second nature to him. He had bent his mind until he scarcely knew its old shape any more. With our help he had schooled himself to think and react from the hip as one of its faithful. Yet he always managed to come up smiling for his weekly debriefings with his case officer:

All right then, Harry? I would ask.

‘Hunky-dory, thanks. How’s your good self and the missus?’

Harry had taken on all the Party’s dirty jobs, in the evenings and on weekends, that other comrades were only too glad to be relieved of. He had sold or failed to sell the Daily Worker at street corners, ditched his unsold copies and turned in the cash we gave him to cover them. He had acted as runner and talent-spotter for visiting Soviet cultural attachés and third secretaries of the KGB, and accepted their dreary assignments to collect tittle-tattle about technical industries in the area where he lived. And if no tittle-tattle came his way, we provided him with that too, having first made sure it was harmless.

Gradually, through diligence and devotion to the cause, Harry rose to become a valued comrade, entrusted with semi-conspiratorial errands that, though he played them for all they were worth, and so did we, seldom amounted to anything of substance in the intelligence market place. But this lack of success didn’t matter, we assured Harry, because he was the right man in the right place, the essential listening post. If you didn’t hear anything, Harry, we told him, that’s fine too because it means we can sleep a little easier at night. And Harry would remark cheerfully that, well, John - or whatever I called myself - somebody has to clean out the drains, don’t they? And we’d say, somebody has to, Harry, and thank you for being the one.

From time to time, perhaps to bolster his morale, we’d enter the virtual world of staybehind: if those Reds ever do come, Harry, and you happen to wake up to find yourself the Party’s grand poobah for your district - that’s when you’ll become the link man for the resistance movement that’s going to have to drive those bastards back into the sea. In earnest of which fantasy, we would dig his radio transmitter out of its hiding place in his attic, blow the dust off it and watch him send dummy messages to an imaginary underground headquarters, and receive dummy orders in return, all by way of practice for the imminent Soviet occupation of Britain. We felt a little awkward doing this, and so did Harry, but it was part of the job, so we got on with it.

Ever since I left the secret world, I pondered the motives of Harry and his wife, and of other Harrys and their wives. Shrinks would have had a field day with Harry, but Harry would have had one with the shrinks, too. ‘So what am I supposed to do, then?’ he’d have asked them. ‘Let the Party steal the bloody country from underneath my nose?’

Harry took no delight in his duplicity. He bore it as a necessary burden of his calling. We paid him a pittance, and if we’d paid him more, he’d have been embarrassed. Besides, he could never have enjoyed his money. So we gave him a tiny private income and a tiny pension and called it his alimony, and we threw in all the respect and friendship that security allowed. With time, furtively, Harry and his wife, who posed as the good comrade’s wife, became mildly religious. The minister of the religion they espoused seems never to have asked why two such avid communists came to him to pray.

When the funeral was over, and the friends and family and Party comrades had dispersed, a pleasant-faced man in a raincoat and black tie walked over to my car and shook my hand. ‘I’m from the Office,’ he murmured shyly. ‘Harry’s my third this month. They all seem to be dying off at the same time.’

Harry was one of the poor bloody infantry of honourable men and women who believed that the communists were set on destroying the country they loved, and felt they’d better do something about it. He thought the Reds were a nice enough bunch in their way, idealistic but a bit warped. So he put his life where his convictions were and died an unknown soldier of the Cold War. The practice of infiltrating spies into supposedly subversive organizations is as ancient as the hills. As J. Edgar Hoover reportedly said with unusual wit when told the news that Kim Philby was a Soviet double agent:

‘Tell ’em, Jesus Christ only had twelve, and one of them was a double.’

Today, when we read of undercover policemen worming their way into peace and animal-rights organizations, taking lovers and fathering children under false identities, we are repelled because we know at once that the targets never justified the deception or the human cost. Harry, thank God, did not operate that way, and he believed absolutely that his work was morally justified. He saw international communism as his country’s enemy, and its British manifestation as the enemy inside the home camp. No British communist I ever met would have subscribed to that view. The British establishment emphatically did, and that was good enough for Harry.