Alan Judd reviews Adam Sisman's life of the spy novelist John Le Carre (Lincoln, 1952)

John Le Carre 
John Le Carre at his Encaenia ceremony at Oxford in 2012

by Alan Judd

John le Carre: The Biography, by Adam Sisman, Bloomsbury, £25, 672 pages

John le Carre: The Biography, by Adam Sisman, Bloomsbury, RRP£25 / Harper, RRP$28.99, 672 pagesI was uneasy about reviewing Adam Sisman’s biography of John le Carre (David Cornwell) because I know and like David and had, in a very small way, contributed to Sisman’s research.  Also, authorised biographies of the living may be compromised by subjects too controlling or authors too inhibited.  However, it was clear from his excellent biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper that Sisman could deal with tricky subjects.  Not that David was one; he seems to have been (forgivably) forgetful at times and layered rather than tricky. Sisman mentions arguments and disagreements but his authorial prerogative to write what he thought was never questioned.  He does, however, hint in his introduction that there might be posthumous additions – ‘I hope to publish a revised and updated version of this biography in the fullness of time.’   

In fact, it’s a biography of two subjects, the second being David’s father, Ronnie, conman, crook and charmer.  To call him a likeable rogue is both accurate and misleading; accurate because he was a real charmer, not only with a long line of ‘lovelies’ (the obliging female chorus who accompanied him throughout life) but with successive Australian cricket teams, leaders of the Liberal Party, an eminent judge, the Kray twins and, indirectly, Lincoln College.  It’s misleading because it implies Falstaffian jollity, making light of a monster who groped his children, involved them in his deceits, conned friends and neighbours out of their pensions and savings, bullied his wife into three-in-a-bed sessions with her best friend and later tried to blackmail his son.            

David was educated at Sherbourne, never knowing how the fees were paid or where he would spend holidays when his father was absent ‘on business’ (at His Majesty’s pleasure), his mother having fled home when he was six.  As the world knows, he later joined MI5 and then MI6 before becoming the world’s pre-eminent espionage novelist.  But it was the intervening years at Oxford that were, for me, among the most interesting.

Ronnie wanted his sons to be lawyers – doubtless to his benefit – and through contacts helped David to a place at Lincoln in 1952, only later discovering that his son was disobediently reading modern languages.   There was a gulf in those days between undergraduates who had done National Service and those who hadn’t.  David had served with Army intelligence in Austria, then studied for a year in Switzerland where he not only improved his German (enough to provoke one Oxford tutor into asking him to speak English to prove he wasn’t German) but was recruited by MI6 as an access agent.  That is, someone who might not have access to intelligence himself but could report on those who did i.e. Soviet officials or their Communist sympathisers.  David was one of only 55 going up to Lincoln that year and could have had no idea how this seed sown by MI6 would shape his life.John le Carre: The Biography, by Adam Sisman, Bloomsbury, RRP£25 / Harper, RRP$28.99, 672 pages

His room was on Chapel Quad, described in a letter to Ann, his girlfriend and later first wife, as ‘a charming attic room with worm-eaten rafters and a rickety bed.’ It also had a 17th century wall painting around the fireplace (still there, presumably?).  He mixed mostly with a rich and smart set, inevitably spending beyond his means because of Ronnie’s erratic subventions.  He hid the truth of his relative poverty in plain sight by joking that he had to ‘go and see his old man in the nick’.  He was elected to dining clubs such as the Goblins and the Gridiron, on one occasion at the latter hiding from a police raid to recover a stolen helmet.  He was also joined the Canning Club, founded to promote and discuss Tory principles, becoming its secretary.  In an example of a happy propensity for running with the hare and hunting with the hounds, he told Ann that ‘Most of my friends’ views are in total opposition to my own.’  A gifted artist, he drew cartoons for Isis and the college magazine, Imp, attended life classes at Ruskin, and took part in dramatized Sunday night debates in the JCR.  In one he had to make the case for Hitler, complete with uniform and moustache.  Like Kingsley Amis, he was – is – a wonderful mimic.  He produced a German play which was broadcast on BBC radio, helped produce another and organised the Lincoln Ball.  His relationship with Ann was still unconsummated and he teased her in letters about other girls; her diary records that during a visit she tried to seduce him ‘and failed.’John Le Carre
Benedict Cumberbatch and Gary Oldman in the successful adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Not everything he touched at Oxford turned to gold.  At one meeting of the Canning he nervously presented a paper on German opposition to Nazi rule before the Senior Member, Trevor-Roper, who probably knew more about the subject than any German.  A commotion outside heralded the arrival of Ronnie, drunk and wearing a too-loud pinstripe suit.  He took ill-informed issue with his son’s paper, was quashed by Trevor-Roper, continued to argue, was reduced to silence.  Afterwards he took David and others to the Taj Mahal restaurant in the Turl, where he insulted the waiter and had to pay him off.  Trevor-Roper subsequently described David’s paper as ‘Typical undergraduate rehash.’ 

One day David was taken to lunch in Woodstock by George Legget, an MI5 officer and gifted linguist who shared his passion for German literature.  They were to become lifelong friends.  Legget invited David to resume the role he had performed for MI6 in Switzerland, adopting a left-wing persona in order to report on left-wing groups, identify secret Communists and trail his coat before Communist officials seeking to recruit disaffected undergraduates.  David agreed and became a conscientious agent, joining the Oxford University Communist Club (which met in supposed secrecy in Lyons’ café in Cornmarket on Sundays), the Socialist Club, the Anglo-Soviet Friendship Society and left-wing discussion groups.  To Ann he wrote, ‘Forgive me if I wave the red flag at you for a while.  I’m trying socialism now.’

John Le CarreSome have criticised him for spying on fellow-students.  But his cooperation – and he was far from alone – should be seen in the context of the Cold War in which the Soviet Union and its acolytes successfully exploited the more open societies of the West to recruit susceptible people (students especially) whom they used to further their own totalitarian purposes.  It was surely reasonable that Western democracies should defend their peoples and freedoms by attempting to discover and frustrate these attacks.  David himself has been robust about it  – ‘I don’t know that it’s such a disgraceful thing to have done, if you look at the record of people who were recruited at university from the ranks of Communist sympathisers and later turned traitors to their country…..the justification for what we did was one I accepted and still accept….somebody has to clean the drains, and I found that I did do things that, although they were in some way morally repugnant, I felt at the time, and still feel, to have been necessary.’

Meanwhile, his busy undergraduate life continued.  He played Bosola in a production of The Duchess of Malfi by the newly-formed Lincoln Players and from digs in Abingdon Road maintained his social double life, mixing with toffs and lefties.  But Ronnie’s subventions became increasingly erratic; cheques bounced and for a while it looked as if he would have to leave until he was generously and tactfully rescued by a wealthy friend, the future ITN newsreader Reginald Bosanquet.  Eventually the college helped negotiate a grant from Buckinghamshire county council.  Nevertheless, he was allowed a year off after his second year, during which he taught, painted and married Ann, before returning to devote himself to his studies.

Along with his passion for the Germanic and his subsequent intelligence career, Oxford had one other lasting effect on the chrysalis le Carre: it gave him one of his models for George Smiley.  Almost all fictional characters are composites, of course, but in Vivian Green, Senior Tutor at Lincoln whom David had first known as a teacher at Sherbourne, he found a lasting friend who was scholarly, wise, honourable, sympathetic, eccentrically dressed, prone to thoughtful silences and to cleaning his glasses with his tie.  Like most of us when we were undergraduates, young David Cornwell knew not how much he was being given. 

Alan Judd’s latest novel, ‘Out of the Blue’, is published by as a Simon&Schuster ebook.     

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Images © Faber and Faber, Paul Wolfgang Webster