To whomsoever it may concern - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

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

Chapter 5. To whomsoever it may concern

Everyone over fifty remembers where they were that day, but stretch and heave as I may, I don’t remember who I was with. So if you were the distinguished German guest sitting at my left side in St Pancras Town Hall on the night of 22 November 1963, perhaps you will be kind enough to make yourself known. You were undoubtedly distinguished, for why else would the British government have invited you? It is also my memory that our visit to St Pancras Town Hall had been billed as a bit of relaxation for you at the end of a tiring day, a chance for you to sit back and observe our British grass-roots democracy at work.

And grass roots they surely were. The hall was packed to the eaves by a lot of angry people. The yelling was so loud I could barely make out the insults that were being hurled at the platform, let alone translate them for you. Grim-faced stewards with arms folded stood along the walls, and if anyone had broken ranks we could have been in for a free-for-all. I believe we had been offered Special Branch protection, and that you had declined it. I remember wishing I had overruled you. Squashed into the centre stalls, we were a long way from the nearest bolt-hole.

The object of the crowd’s outrage stood on the platform, giving as good as he got. Quintin Hogg, formerly Viscount Hailsham, had disclaimed his peerage to fight the St Marylebone seat in the Tory interest. A fight was what he liked and what he was getting. A month earlier, Harold Macmillan had resigned. A general election loomed. Though the name won’t ring many bells these days, least of all abroad, Quintin Hogg, aka Lord Hailsham, was in 1963 the pugnacious British archetype of a bygone age. Etonian, classicist, wartime soldier, lawyer, mountaineer, homophobe and vociferous Christian conservative, he was above all a political showman, famous for his bombast and pugnacity. In the thirties, in common with many of his party, he had toyed with appeasement before throwing in his lot with Churchill. After the war, he became that archetypal nearly-man of politics everywhere, constantly tipped for high office, only to be left sitting in the waiting room - but tonight, and to the end of his long life, the upper-class British brawler the electorate loved to hate.

I no longer remember Hogg’s points of argument that night, if I even got to hear them above the tumult. But I remember, as anyone would in those days, his red-faced truculence, his too-short trousers and black lace-up boots set apart like a wrestler’s, his puffy, agricultural face and curled fists; and, yes, that booming upper-class roar prevailing against the crowd’s howls that I was trying to translate for the benefit of whoever I was accompanying.

Enter left of stage a Shakespearean messenger. I remember a small, grey man, half on tiptoe. He sidles up to Hogg and murmurs into his right ear. Hogg’s arms, until now flailing in remonstrance or derision, flop to his sides. His eyes close, and open. He tilts his strangely elongated head to hear again the words that are being murmured to him. The Churchillian glower is replaced by disbelief, then utter surrender. In a humbled voice he excuses himself, and with the erectness of a man going to the scaffold, exits, followed by the messenger. To a few hopefuls he has quit the field, and they scream their abuse after him. Slowly the room is overtaken by an uneasy quiet. Hogg returns, his face ashen, his movements stiff and self-conscious. Not a sound greets him. Still he waits, head bowed as he gathers strength. He lifts his head and we see tears streaming down his cheeks.

Finally, he says it. For now, and for all time. A statement so finite, so unarguable, that unlike any other he has made tonight, it will never be contested.

‘I have just been informed that President Kennedy has been assassinated. The meeting is over.’

It is ten years later. A Foreign Service friend invites me to a grand dinner at All Souls College, Oxford, in honour of an extinct benefactor. We are all men, which I believe in those days was the rule. Nobody is young. The food is exquisite; the erudite conversation, what I can understand of it, refined. Between each phase of the feast we process from one candlelit dining room to another, each more beautiful than the last, each with a long table set in ageless College silver. As we change rooms, so the seating arrangement changes with us, which is how at the second - or was it third? - remove I find myself placed next to the same Quintin Hogg, or as his name card now proclaims him, the recently created Baron Hailsham of St Marylebone. Having renounced his earlier title in order to enter the Commons, the former Mr Hogg has provided himself with a new title in order to return to the Lords.

I’m not good at small talk at the best of times, least of all when I am landed with a combative Tory peer with political views that, insofar as I have any, fly directly in the face of my own. The venerable scholar to my left is expounding eloquently on a subject of which I know nothing. The venerable scholar across the table is arguing a point of Greek mythology. I am not sound on Greek mythology. But the Baron Hailsham on my right, having taken one look at my place card, has lapsed into a silence so disapproving, so morose and absolute that in all courtesy I feel compelled to end it. Today I cannot explain what quirk of social manners forbade me to refer to the moment when news of Kennedy’s assassination was brought to him at St Pancras Town Hall. Perhaps I supposed he would have no wish to be reminded of such a public display of emotion.

For want of a better subject, I talk about myself. I explain that I am a writer by profession, I unveil my pen-name, which does not enthral him. Or perhaps he knows it already, which accounts for his despondency. I say I am fortunate to have a house in Hampstead, but live mostly in West Cornwall. I extol the beauties of the Cornish countryside. I ask him whether he too has somewhere in the country where he can stretch out at weekends. Now at least he must respond. He has indeed such a place, and tells me so in three exasperated words:

‘Hailsham, you fool.’