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

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


Thu, 29/09/2016 - 11:30


John le Carré
John le Carré
29 September, 2016

TRUTH or fiction, lies or facts? Does it really matter so long as a spy novel overwhelms you by the magnificence of its storyteller, the intrigue and excitement created, the explosive emotions evoked that may want to make you dance or cry? Or even raise our patriotic flag aloft in tribute to genuine genius, a defender of democracy against all foes.

Step forward, of course, John le Carré, otherwise David Cornwell. The cleverest man, some say, they have ever known, and birthday boy next month when he hits 85 with glowing praise for his most recent TV sensation, The Night Manager.

He is the self-made man of mystery who has fooled us all to become the most successful millionaire novelist of modern times by claiming that deceit is an impregnable part of his birthright, the enigmatic son of a ruthless conman, and bred to become a British spy in cold war Germany.

And part of that has been in refusing gongs and never seeking literary awards, in particular because he rightly rejects the genre of spy writer into which he is persistently dumped when, in fact, his continuous commentary on past decades in 23 novels is, I certainly believe, a vital political and social global analysis too often ignored.

Yet there remains a yearning to unravel his past to expose the real David Cornwell, and all the more so as he is now recognised as a man of true moral convictions and fortitude, who last year expressed fears that Britain might be sliding towards fascism.

That’s a fact today’s political turmoil undoubtedly provides a warning now that Brexit has undermined a stable and sustainable future for the UK.

Almost a year ago Adam Sisman’s 650-page biography delved into his life with Cornwell’s help and approval, their luncheon meeting ground Hampstead’s The Wells pub, just round the corner from Cornwell’s home.

But now, a year later, we have, to the surprise – and annoyance – of some critics Cornwell’s own fascinating memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, his explanation being that, with fading memory he wants to expand the “thumbnail versions of one or two stories, so it naturally pleases me to reclaim them as my own, tell them with my own voice...”

And what a voice since Cornwell is a linguist, a wonderful mimic, an absorber of great intelligence and, as becomes obvious, writes better than Sisman. The result is inevitably a remarkable telling of stories from his many foreign adventures, which provided the authentic sources for his many acclaimed novels.

As he explains: “Spying and novel writing are made for each other. Both call for a ready eye for human transgression and the many routes to betrayal. Those of us who have been inside the secret tent never really leave it.”

Eight of the 38 chapters – some are just three or four pages long – have appeared in past decades as Cornwell has flitted from Monte Carlo Moscow, from Bremen to Bangkok, visited Rwanda, Cambodia, Lebanon interviewed the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat on the outskirts of Beirut.

This has provoked some critical response from those declaring, Why bother?, only to be systematically seduced by Cornwell’s great skill, his ability to capture your imagination, especially at a time when the murderous state of the world with millions of refugees on the march.

Indeed, as Cornwell has declared: “You can’t make war against terror. Terror is a technique of battle. It’s a tactic that has been employed since time immemorial. You can conduct clandestine action against terrorists – and that must be done.”

What annoys me are critics who say he needs an editor when they are unaware of his sophisticated writing process that transforms his “scribblings” into elegant prose alongside his rarely mentioned wife, Jane, his former book editor at publishers Hodder and Stoughton.

Plus their lack of any personal acquaintance, something I have fortunately enjoyed.

While their cliff-top home in Cornwall is now promoted as their hideaway home away from the throng, I suggest that it is Hampstead that has played the more significant role in Cornwell’s career, having arrived initially in Gayton Crescent, where we first met, before subsequently moving to Gainsborough Gardens.

Stories From My Life is the sub-title of The Pigeon Tunnel, the cover of which displays a double black silhouette relief of Cornwell/le Carré as part of his life-long subterfuge, three of them poignantly – and locally – based.

The first graphically tells of his presence at St Pancras Town Hall on the night of November 22, 1963, for a political meeting where Quintin Hogg, formerly Viscount Hailsham, was the speaker when a general election loomed following the resignation of Harold Macmillan. It came to a dramatic halt when Hogg, called off stage by a messenger, returns, tears streaming down his face, to announce the assassination of President Kennedy.

The second, a vignette I enjoyed the most, is his story of dining in a Chinese restaurant with his wife and Joseph Brodsky, the exiled Russian writer and political prisoner, when a messenger tells them that Brodsky, then enjoying large whiskies while sipping his chicken noodle soup, has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The third saga tells how Karel Reisz, the celebrated Czech-born film director whose parents were murdered in Auschwitz, invites him to his home in Chalcot Gardens, Belsize Park, and in the presence of his wife, the actress Betsy Blair and film director Lindsay Anderson, he meets a fellow Czech named Vladimir Pucholt, who wants to defect to the UK and train to become a doctor.

They implore a highly dubious Cornwell to use his influence to ensure the young man’s future, a request he finds totally baffling but, eventually, amazingly achieves. 

Years later, in 2007, Cornwell writes A Most Wanted Man – all about an asylum seeker not from Czechoslovakia but Chechnya, a Muslim, not a Christian, in a similar plight with one ambition to be a great doctor helping suffering people.

Vladimir repaid every penny he ever borrowed from me,” he recalls. “What he didn’t know – and neither did I until I came to write A Most Wanted Man – was that he had made me the non-returnable gift of a fictional character.”

• The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life. By John le Carré, Penguin Viking, £20

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