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John le Carre

Some writers are feted in their own era and then fall into obscurity while others write in a vacuum and are lionised when it is too late for them and their impoverished families. Ford Maddox Ford is an example of the first and Jane Austin, perhaps, of the second. Then there is another type, successful, commercial with a great prose style but who is pigeonholed in a genre and not taken seriously by the literary establishment. John le Carre, or John Cornwall as he was christened, suffers in this way.

He is known as a ‘spy writer’ - despite having written more books outside that genre than in it. He is also consigned to the sub-genre of ‘Cold War’ with its own implications of being ‘establishment’ and old fashioned. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. When future generations want to understand their great-grandparents and the strange world of Europe between 1945 and 1989, they will read Le Carre. He describes an English society that now seems so foreign to us, deferential, snobbish and clubbable, where the Second World War was the dominant event and the world was seen in Manichaean terms - but subverted in the looking-glass world into something much more nuanced and complicated. If any writer can lay claim to this turf it is Le Carre and that is the basis of his stature.

But he has continued, with huge energy, to turn out books about the modern world and indeed his own complicated life. What comes out of this later fiction is his radicalism and anti-establishment views. The common perception is that he was himself one of the establishment spies of the Smiley series. Far from it. His father was conman, bigamist and crook whose lies and crimes scarred his son’s early life. As a young man he taught at Eton – remarking pointedly that the English upper classed were even worse than they pretended to be. His later books are furious denunciations of global corporations and corruption high and low amongst politicians and civil servants. He is a crusader when most authors of his age and status are winding down under the weight of honours and hagiography. He recently wrote a piece about the writing of his first book, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which finished with this – a summation of his view of the world, then and now.

‘The merit of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, then – or its offence, depending where you stood – was not that it was authentic, but that it was credible. The bad dream turned out to be one that a lot of people in the world were sharing, since it asked the same old question that we are asking ourselves 50 years later: how far can we go in the rightful defence of our western values, without abandoning them along the way? My fictional chief of the British Service – I called him Control – had no doubt of the answer:

"I mean, you can't be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government's policy is benevolent, can you now?"

Today, the same man, with better teeth and hair and a much smarter suit, can be heard explaining away the catastrophic illegal war in Iraq, or justifying medieval torture techniques as the preferred means of interrogation in the 21st century, or defending the inalienable right of closet psychopaths to bear semi-automatic weapons, and the use of unmanned drones as a risk-free method of assassinating one's perceived enemies and anybody who has the bad luck to be standing near them. Or, as a loyal servant of his corporation, assuring us that smoking is harmless to the health of the third world, and great banks are there to serve the public.

What have I learned over the last 50 years? Come to think of it, not much. Just that the morals of the secret world are very like our own’
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