Fingers on the trigger - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

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

Chapter 4. Fingers on the trigger

The most impressive of the politicians that I escorted to Britain during my three years at the British Embassy in Bonn was Fritz Erler, in 1963 the German Social Democratic Party’s leading authority on defence and foreign policy, and widely tipped as a future chancellor of West Germany. He was also, as I knew from stints of sitting out Bundestag debates, a scathing and witty opponent of both Chancellor Adenauer and his Defence Minister, Franz Josef Strauss. And since privately I disliked the pair of them as much as Erler appeared to, I was doubly pleased to be given the job of accompanying him on a visit to London, where he would be holding talks with leading British parliamentarians of all persuasions, including the Labour leader Harold Wilson and the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan.

The burning issue of the moment was Germany’s finger on the trigger: how much say should the Bonn government have in the decision to launch US missiles from West German bases in the event of nuclear war? It was this topic that Erler had recently discussed in Washington with President Kennedy and his Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara. My job, on assignment from the Embassy, was to accompany him throughout his stay in England and generally make myself useful as his private secretary, factotum and interpreter. Although Erler, no fool, spoke more English than he let on, he liked the extra thinking time granted him by the interpreting process, and was undeterred when he was told I was not a trained interpreter. The trip was to last ten days and the schedule was tight. The Foreign Office had booked him into a suite at the Savoy Hotel and provided me with a room a few doors down the same corridor.

Each morning around five o’clock, I bought the day’s papers from a news vendor in the Strand and, with the Savoy’s vacuum cleaners whizzing round my ears, sat in the hotel lounge marking up any bits of news or comment that I thought Erler should know about ahead of the day’s meetings. I then dumped them on the floor outside his room, returned to mine and waited for the signal for our morning canter, which came sharp at 7.00.

Loping along beside me in his black beret and raincoat, Erler cut an austere and seemingly humourless figure, but I knew he was neither of these things. We would walk in one direction for ten minutes, each morning a different route. He would then stop, turn on his heel and, head down, hands linked behind his back, eyes fixed on the pavement, reel off the names of shops and brass plates that we had passed, while I checked them for accuracy. It was an exercise in mental discipline, he explained after a couple of such excursions, that he had acquired in Dachau concentration camp. Shortly before the outbreak of war, he was sentenced to ten years’ incarceration for ‘planning high treason’ against the Nazi government. In 1945, while on a notorious death march of prisoners out of Dachau, he contrived to escape and lie low in Bavaria until the German surrender.

The exercise in mental discipline had evidently worked, for I don’t remember him fluffing a single shop name or brass plate.

Our meetings over the next ten days were a Cook’s Tour of Westminster’s great, good and not so good. I have a pictorial memory of the faces across the table, and an aural memory of certain voices. Harold Wilson’s I found particularly distracting. Lacking the detachment of the trained interpreter, I was far too interested in the vocal and physical idiosyncrasies of my subjects. I remember particularly Wilson’s unlit pipe and his theatrical use of it as a stage tool. Of the substance of our supposedly high-level dialogues, I have no memory whatever. Our interlocutors appeared to have as light a grasp of defence matters as I had, which was a mercy, for although I had boned up on a list of technical terms from the macabre vocabulary of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), they remained as incomprehensible to me in English as they were in German. But I don’t believe I ever had to trot them out, and today I doubt I would recognize them.

Only one encounter remains indelibly fixed in my memory, visually, aurally and in substance, and that was the grand climax of our ten-day tour: putative future Chancellor Fritz Erler meets incumbent British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan at 10 Downing Street.

We are in mid-September 1963. In March of that year, Secretary of State for War John Profumo had made his personal statement to the Commons denying any improper association with a Miss Christine Keeler, an English nightclub girl living under the protection of Stephen Ward, a fashionable London osteopath. That a married War Secretary should keep a mistress might be reprehensible, but not unheard of. That he might be sharing her, as Keeler claimed, with the Naval Attaché from the Soviet Embassy in London was excessive. The scapegoat was the luckless osteopath Stephen Ward who, after a trumped-up trial, killed himself without waiting for the verdict. By June, Profumo had resigned from government and Parliament. By October, Macmillan too had resigned, pleading ill health. Erler’s encounter with him took place in September, just weeks before he threw in the towel.

We arrived at 10 Downing Street late, never a good start. The government car that had been sent for us failed to show up, and I had been reduced to stepping into the middle of the road in my black coat and striped trousers, forcing a passing driver to stop and asking him to take us to 10 Downing Street as fast as possible. Understandably, the driver, a young man in a suit with a woman passenger at his side, thought I was mad. But his passenger rebuked him. ‘Go on, do it. Or they’ll be late,’ she said, and the young man bit his lip and did as he was told. We clambered into the back, Erler gave the young man his card, said any time they came to Bonn. But we were still ten minutes late.

Ushered into Macmillan’s office, we made our apologies and sat down. Macmillan sat motionless behind his desk, his liver-spotted hands before him. His Private Secretary, Philip de Zulueta, Welsh Guardsman, soon to be knight of the realm, sat at his side. Erler regretted in German that the car was late. I seconded him in English. Beneath the prime ministerial hands lay a sheet of glass, and under it, in typed letters large enough to read upside down, lay a prime ministerial briefing paper with Erler’s curriculum vitae. The word Dachau was written large. While Macmillan spoke, his hands travelled over the glass as if reading braille. His patrician slur, perfectly captured by Alan Bennett in the satirical Beyond the Fringe, was like an old gramophone record running at a very low speed. A trail of unstoppable tears leaked from the corner of his right eye, down a groove and into his shirt collar.

After a few courteous words of welcome, delivered with halting Edwardian charm - have they made you comfortable? are they looking after you? are they providing you with the right people to talk to? - Macmillan asked Erler with evident curiosity what he had come to talk about, a question that, at the least, took Erler by surprise.

‘Verteidigung,’ he replied.

Defence.

Thus informed, Macmillan consulted his brief, and I can only assume that his eye, like mine, again caught the word Dachau, for he brightened.

‘Well then, Herr Erler,’ he declared with sudden energy. ‘You suffered in the Second World War, and I suffered in the First World War.’

Pause for needless translation by self.

Another exchange of courtesies. Is Erler a family man? Yes, Erler concedes, he is a family man. I duly translate. At Macmillan’s request he enumerates his children and adds that his wife is also politically engaged. I translate that too.

‘And you have been talking to America’s defence experts, they tell me,’ Macmillan went on in a tone of jocular surprise after another examination of the large print under the sheet of glass.

‘Ja.’

Yes.

‘And do you also have defence experts in your party?’ Macmillan enquires as one beleaguered statesman commiserating with another.

‘Ja,’ Erler replies more sharply than I would have wished.

Yes.

Hiatus. I glance at de Zulueta, trying to enlist his support. It is not to be enlisted. After a week of Erler at close quarters, I am all too familiar with his impatience when a dialogue fails to come up to expectation. I know that he is not afraid to show his disappointment. I know how thoroughly he has prepared himself for this meeting above all others.

‘They come to me, you see,’ Macmillan complains wistfully. ‘These defence experts. As I expect they come to you too. And they say to me, the bombs are going to fall here, and the bombs are going to fall there’ - the prime ministerial hands distributing the bombs across the glass - ‘but you suffered in the Second World War, and I suffered in the First World War!’ - that sense of discovery again - ‘And you and I know that the bombs will fall wherever they’re going to fall!’

Somehow I translated this. Even in German it took a third of the time Macmillan had needed, and sounded twice as ridiculous. When I had done, Erler ruminated for a while. When he ruminated, the muscles in his gaunt face had a way of rising and falling independently. Suddenly he stood up, reached for his beret and thanked Macmillan for his time. He was waiting for me to stand too, so I did. Macmillan, as surprised as we all were, half-raised himself for the handshake and slumped down again. As we headed for the door, Erler turned to me and gave vent to his exasperation:

‘Dieser Mann ist nicht mehr regierungsfähig.’

This man is no longer capable of government. It is a formulation that strikes the German ear as odd. Perhaps he was quoting from something he had recently read or heard. Either way, de Zulueta heard it too and, worse still, knew German. A furious ‘I heard that’, hissed into my passing ear, confirmed it.

This time the government car was waiting for us. But Erler preferred the walk, head down, hands linked behind his back, eyes fixed on the pavement. Back in Bonn, I sent him a copy of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which had just come out, and confessed my authorship. When Christmas came round, he spoke kindly of it in the German press. That same December he was elected the official leader of the German parliamentary opposition. Three years later he had died of cancer.