Search This Blog

Showing posts with label a private spy the letters of john le carre. Show all posts
Showing posts with label a private spy the letters of john le carre. Show all posts

Saturday 30 March 2024

My Life in Letters Then and Emails Now


From the published volume of letters A Private Spy (2022) it’s clear that John le Carré was good at keeping up with his correspondence. In his case, it’s not obvious that he was writing for posterity; he often kept no copies. ( See the Review on this site 1 November 2022)/  He may have been following a habit established in many childhoods of the past where in addition to dutiful Thank You letters there might be absent parents to whom regular and often anxious letters would be addressed.

Le Carré, who was never less than very busy, often replied to complete strangers and not just by sending best wishes and the autograph which might be hoped for. But this was not eccentricity; there was a time when anyone could, for the price of a postage stamp, write to anyone - even a famous writer - and reasonably hope for some kind of reply. The Collected Letters of some authors are numbered in thousands - ten thousand and counting in the case of Henry James.


In 1963 John Dancy, the Master of Marlborough College, published The Public Schools and the Future. I read it and wrote to tell him that as far as this sixteen-year-old grammar school boy was concerned, they had no future. I got a nice reply inviting me and three or four school friends to stay at Marlborough for a week and, in exchange, accept a return visit to our school from some of his boys, accommodation to be provided in our homes. Talk to my own Headmaster and deal done. As a result, one unfortunate Marlborough boy had to pass a week without a bath, hot water, and with use only of an outside toilet.

This positive reinforcement to a letter-writing habit was not the first I had received. As a youthful stamp collector I wrote to The Postmaster, The Maldive Islands (perfectly adequate address) asking for information about that country but, of course, hoping for a reply franked with collectible local stamps. The Maldives were not then a tourist destination and mail was scarce. I got the stamps on the outside and inside the large envelope a locally-printed booklet giving me more information than the Britannica could supply. I still remember one detail: the Maldivian government had recently welcomed its newest and most youthful cabinet minister; he was sixteen.

Just turned seventeen, and thanks to a Your Holiday This Summer address provided in The Daily Mail, I travelled (train, boat, train) to the Swedish province of Dalarna for a post-A level summer job in the Hotel Siljansborg – now demolished – where Ingmar Bergman had sometimes retreated to write screenplays. I didn’t know that and didn’t make a connection to the wild strawberries I ate on walks by Lake Siljan. I was just curious that they were called smultron but regular strawberries jordgubbar.

With a track record of epistolary success I found it easy enough to take on the task, allotted to university club secretaries, of writing to prospective visiting speakers and passing on resolutions carried to those they were carried against. And so it has continued for most of my life.

In the examples given, I profiled myself in some minimal way: grammar school boy, stamp collector, club secretary.  The pitch I made to Miss Arpi for a job in her hotel did also include a brief To Whom It May Concern reference from my school, which I reckoned necessary. But, realistically, none of the letters’ recipients could have sought further credentials and would not have attempted it. Where might they look? Who’s Who? The telephone directory?  Readers had to take on trust that you were who you said you were and that you were writing for a reason. That had to be enough and, if satisfied, you replied. Fröken Arpi employed me because I wrote to her and asked for work. She didn’t even see a photograph.


A world like that no longer exists.

Some of the 1960s club secretary correspondence is now housed among the John Johnson collections of the Bodleian Library. But when in the 1970s I deposited the first batch of this and other hard copy material, unsorted in boxes and carrier bags, it never occurred to me that one day in 2023 I would sit at a computer screen and scroll through forty-seven open access pages which inventory the contents of twenty-one organised boxes.  I’m not even sure it’s an outcome I would have wanted; it seems rather indiscreet. I had imagined an archive gathering the dust of discretion and awaiting its chance discoverer.

To state the obvious, teenagers no longer pen letters; they write emails and so does almost everyone. And email recipients can easily check credentials before replying and many do:  Who are you (or, perhaps, Who do you think you are?). Are you on Facebook, X, LinkedIn,, ResearchGate, Tinder? Quite aside from the contents of an online Profile, those locations have their own status rankings as do obsessively informative university directories.

What do you look like? Do you have a dog? Are you transphobic? Do you have a doctorate? Are you on editorial boards? The answers to a myriad of possible questions are there on the internet and create the human algorithm which determines whether a reply is sent. The original email could be a literary masterpiece (grant that hypothesis …) but that is nothing compared to a shiny CV polished only yesterday.

In the search for credentials, email recipients may forget one thing. They often leave a trace and the email sender will be aware that you have read the CV and, indeed, very shortly after receiving the email to which you do (or don’t) reply. You can’t have been that busy. Seems like you were sitting at your desk anxiously waiting for the World to contact you, then disappointed to find that it is only a namesake of that famous person who has written.

Such eager profiling could be a sensible attempt to avoid wasting time on a time-waster. But in both literary and academic contexts it may just be an index of status anxiety. Those are contexts where too many people are chasing not enough (insecure, poorly paid) jobs. In that kind of world, you reply to an email from someone of higher status or who might help your career, but don’t reply to someone who clearly can’t, for whatever reason, and who can’t be quantified under “public engagement”. No one puts on their CV, “replied to eighty-seven unsolicited emails from the great unwashed”.

John le Carré found enough time to engage with the public as individuals, sometimes over a couple of handwritten pages. He also went on the open-to-all, non-virtual stage. I listened to him shortly before his death in a packed Royal Festival Hall where he spoke for an hour, standing erect; what he said had substance and style. And, in the end, what matters is substance and style, not the template-driven Profile, which like most people I now feel obliged to offer..










Tuesday 1 November 2022

A Private Spy The Letters of John le Carré edited by Tim Cornwell


Browsing a provincial auction catalogue, some years ago, I noticed for sale an autograph letter signed David Cornwell on notepaper headed John le Carré. I was reading lots of le Carré at the time and, out of curiosity, bought the letter unseen. Forty quid. He writes to Stacey [there was no envelope so I have no surname] who appears to be laid up in hospital after an accident and asks for reading suggestions. The writer obliges: start with P G Wodehouse (“the funniest man ever”) and for fine writing head to Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair, and Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier. As if that’s not enough to be going on with, the writer then throws in The Three Musketeers and The Prisoner of Zenda. It’s all prefaced by advance notice for his The Mission Song, the galleys of which he is currently correcting. His full address in Cornwall is written in by hand and the letter dated 19:v:06. I was impressed. Stacey appeared to be a complete stranger who had written to a famous and almost certainly very busy author and received back a thoughtful, handwritten two-page reply.

In his Introduction to this very well-crafted collection of his father’s letters, the late Tim Cornwell indicates that his father was an (unusually) good correspondent, often replying to unsolicited mail and promptly (pages xxii-xxiii). He generally wrote by hand and often kept no copy. As a result, the le Carré archive in the Bodleian Library, on which this collection of over 600 pages is fairly dependent, will contain no trace of letters like that to Stacey and the deficit could really only be reduced by buying up such originals as appear on the internet, as they do. Sometimes the content will be of interest - as in the letter I have summarised - but, perhaps as importantly, those letters suggest what one could regard either as noblesse oblige or - and I incline to this - a rather democratic spirit. The latter interpretation is supported by what to me is the heartening fact that David Cornwell never accepted one of those tarnished medals handed out by our Monarch and which Woke novelists now declare after their names to show that they are Members of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. It is not as if he was opposed to all recognition:  he accepted, for example, a Goethe Medal in 2011 and a D Litt from Oxford.

In the book under review, le Carré does give reasons for refusing a CBE on the recommendation of Margaret Thatcher but the letter (at pages 238-39) is written to the then Head of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, Sir Dick Franks, and could be read as at least partly an effort to deflect any accusation of disloyalty to the Establishment. Much later, after le Carré has entertained the Russian Ambassador for a weekend at his home in Cornwall, he follows up with a report on the weekend addressed to Alan Judd, who has already been introduced in the editorial notes as a link-man into MI6/SIS (pages 387-396). Le Carré  expresses himself rather differently when writing to a friend, Sir John Margetson, in 2010: “PS. Did I tell you I passed on a K[knighthood]. All right for public servants, not good for artists, writers & the like”. (He’s right; I was disappointed when Kazuo Ishiguro accepted a K. Some way or other, it’s going to cramp your style).

In my own reading of le Carré’s novels I eventually got round to A Perfect Spy, wonderful on first read, not least because the narrative drive never lost out to a complex structure kept in place from start to finish. I was impressed enough to re-read and began to pick out literary devices which were being used but not pointed to. I found myself drawn to a one-liner attributed to a main character, “Never mind, E Weber love you always” which is repeated three times to great effect. I wrote a few hundred words about this and was quite pleased with the result. It occurred to me that I had John le Carré’s home address sitting in a file: I could send him what I’d written. It would be a bit cheeky: I would be evading the person in charge of the paper shredder in some literary agent’s office, employed to protect authors from crank letter-writers. But I sent it anyway.

To my astonishment, within a few days I had a handwritten reply (10th Feb 2017) in which I am told, rather teasingly, that I have caught something of the real person behind the character of E.Weber, “at her charming best”.

Writers do depend on encouragement, and I was encouraged to expand what I had written into a more sustained reflection on A Perfect Spy for inclusion in a book I was working on. And then I thought I’d go for broke: I wrote again to ask permission to include his letter in the body of my essay and, if he was in principle agreeable, to give me the necessary contact details for his agent etc.  Came the handwritten reply (25th July 2017), “…no need to trouble my agent: please regard this letter as consent enough”. And so the letter appears at pages 98-99 of my completely unsuccessful book, Prose Improvements (2017). I returned again to A Perfect Spy in a 2018 review on this site and, in contrast to my failed book, it’s one of the most popular pages here with over a thousand visitors.

The letters offered in the volume under review are to family, friends, lovers (though sparsely), secret and diplomatic service colleagues, fellow writers, agents, and so on. There are a handful addressed to what one might call members of the public: to Mrs Betty Quail who thinks that George Smiley’s problems would be solved by conversion to Catholicism (p 230); to a ten year old boy who wants to be a spy (p 281) and another to an eleven year old (p 359); to attentive readers in the Netherlands and Germany who have spotted plot impossibilities and inconsistencies (p 336, p 354) - the first one a beauty in which the Emperor is clearly caught with no clothes; le Carré is greatly amused and sends a signed hardback as a prize.

But these letters feel like curiosities alongside the more weighty correspondence, some of it providing useful grist for those who want to study plot and character and device in the novels. This is very obviously so in letters to Alec Guinness where le Carré is  clear and detailed about how he thinks George Smiley should be played (notably pages 211-15).

To my surprise, it was easy to read this book rather than pick up, put down, and basically browse.. A lot must be owing to the skills of the editor, le Carré’s son the late Tim Cornwell, who structures the book around the major novels and provides helpful, unassertive, notes of guidance. If there is a weakness it must (inevitably and invisibly) rest in the fact that the compilation is a family affair, approved by the family Estate, and appearing really very soon after le Carré’s death at the end of 2020.

Like father like son. I was struck by the similarities between father and son. Both display extraordinary energy, are on the move constantly (though le Carré likes to describe himself as a recluse in Cornwall - with a guest wing built to accommodate six …), and are good at making friends and influencing people. The difference, of course, is that Reggie was a career con-man criminal notching up jail sentences in several countries (not many criminals achieve that distinction) and losing his winnings every time, whereas le Carré amasses - and doesn’t lose, though sometimes gives away chunks -  a large fortune built entirely on his genius as a writer and the skill of his agents in selling film and TV rights.

There is hardly a page in the 630 pages of this collection of letters where the author is not busy, whether writing, travelling to dangerous places to do background research for a novel,promoting a new novel, or co-operating with scriptwriters, directors, producers. Both energy and achievement are extraordinary.


I will do my duty and make copies of the letters I mentioned at the beginning and post them to the archivist at the Bodleian.