Official visit - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

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

Chapter 3. Official visit

One of my more agreeable duties while serving at the British Embassy in Bonn in the early sixties was escorting, or ‘bear-leading’ as the Germans have it, delegations of promising young Germans to Britain to learn from our democratic ways and - such was our proud hope - emulate them. Most were first-time parliamentarians or rising political journalists, some very bright, and all, as I only now remember, male.

The average tour lasted one week: depart Cologne airport on the Sunday evening BEA flight, receive welcoming address from British Council or Foreign Office representative, return on the following Saturday morning. Over five close-packed days, the guests would visit both Houses of Parliament; attend Question Time in the Commons; visit the High Courts of Justice and maybe the BBC; be received by government ministers and Opposition leaders of a rank determined in part by the standing of the delegates and in part by the whim of their hosts; and sample the rustic beauties of England (Windsor Castle, Runnymede for the Magna Carta, and the model English country town of Woodstock in Oxfordshire).

And come evening, they had a choice of going to the theatre or pursuing their private interests, by which was intended - see your British Council information pack - that delegates of the Catholic or Lutheran persuasion would consort with their co-religionists, socialists with their Labour comrades-in-arms, and those with more specialized private interests, such as the emerging economies of the Third World, could sit down together with their British counterparts. For further information or requests, please don’t hesitate to consult your tour guide and interpreter, meaning me.

And hesitate they didn’t. Which was how it came about that at eleven o’clock of a balmy summer’s Sunday evening in a West End hotel, I was standing at the concierge’s desk with a ten-pound note in my hand and half-a-dozen well-refreshed young German parliamentarians leaning over my shoulder demanding female company. They had been in England for four hours, most for the first time. All they knew about London in the sixties was that it was swinging, and they were determined to swing with it. Thus far, a Scotland Yard sergeant I happened to know had recommended a nightclub in Bond Street, where ‘the girls played fair and didn’t diddle you’. Two black cabs had rushed us to its doors. But the doors were barred and padlocked and no lights burned. The sergeant had forgotten that in those long-gone days we had Sunday closing laws. Now, with my guests’ hopes dashed, I was appealing to the concierge as a last resort, and for ten pounds he did not disappoint:

‘Halfway up Curzon Street on your left-hand side, sir, and there’s a blue light in the window says “French Lessons Here”. If the light’s out, that means the girls are busy. If it’s not out, that means they’re open for business. But keep it on the quiet side.’

To accompany my wards through thick and thin, or leave them to their pleasures? Their blood was up. They spoke little English, and their German was not always on the quiet side. The blue light was not out. It was of a peculiarly insinuating fluorescence, and seemed to be the only light in the street. A short garden path led to the front door. An illuminated bell button was marked ‘Press’. Ignoring the concierge’s advice, my delegates weren’t keeping it on the quiet side. I pressed the bell. The door was opened by a large, middle-aged lady in a white kaftan and bandana headscarf.

‘Yes?’ she demanded indignantly, as if we had roused her from her slumbers.

I was on the point of apologizing for disturbing her, but the parliamentary member for a constituency west of Frankfurt was ahead of me.

‘We are German and we wish to learn French!’ he bellowed in his best English to roars of approval from his comrades.

Our hostess was undaunted.

‘It’s five pounds each for a short moment, and one at a time,’ she said, with the severity of a prep-school matron.

About to leave my delegates to their specialized interests, I spotted two uniformed constables, one old, one young, approaching us down the pavement. I was wearing a black jacket and striped trousers.

‘I’m from the Foreign Office. These gentlemen are my official guests.’

‘Less noise,’ said the older one, and they walked sedately on.