Saturday, September 3, 2016

John le Carré's autobiography The Pigeon Tunnel: 'I was beaten by my father, abandoned by my mother'

The Pigeon Tunnel by John le Carré
Reviewed by Luke Harding

(of his father): Ronnie’s entire life was spent walking on the thinnest, slipperiest layer of ice you can imagine. He saw no paradox between being on the wanted list for fraud and sporting a grey topper in the owners’ enclosure at Ascot..

Spying was forced on me from birth much in the way, I suppose, that the sea was forced on CS Forester or India on Paul Scott. Out of the secret world I once knew, I have tried to make a theatre for the larger worlds we inhabit. First comes the imagining, then the search for the reality. Then back to the imagining, and to the desk where I’m sitting now... Read extract here

John le Carré was beaten up by his father and grew up mostly starved of affection after his mother abandoned him at the age of five, he reveals in his hugely awaited autobiography The Pigeon Tunnel, serialised in the Guardian. Le Carré – one of the greatest novelists of the postwar era – gives a definitive account of his life as a writer and sometime MI6 agent. He insists he is an author who “once happened to be a spy” rather than a “spy who turned to writing”.

His memoir details the extraordinary first-hand research and relentless travel that underpins his long career and literary success. Le Carré gives amusing and at times lacerating pen portraits of Margaret Thatcher, Rupert Murdoch and Yasser Arafat, as well as a kaleidoscope of other cultural and political figures.

The most personal passages cover Le Carré’s fraught relationship with his father, Ronnie, whom he describes as a “conman, fantasist [and] occasional jailbird”. Ronnie was an erratic presence in his childhood and adulthood, he writes, who beat up his mother, Olive, prompting her to “bolt”.
“Certainly Ronnie beat me up, too, but only a few times and not with much conviction. It was the shaping up that was the scary part: the lowering and readying of the shoulders, the resetting of the jaw,” Le Carré writes, adding that Ronnie would call him from various foreign prisons asking for money. “Today, I don’t remember feeling any affection in childhood except for my elder brother, who for a time was my only parent.”

Le Carré – whose real name is David Cornwell – offers insight into his creative habits. He explains that he “loves writing on the hoof, in notebooks on walks, in trains and cafes”. He eschews laptops and computers. “Arrogantly, perhaps, I prefer to remain with the centuries-old tradition of unmechanised writing,” he says.

In 1982 Thatcher invited him for lunch, after he refused a government honour. “I had not voted for her,” he writes. He had just returned from a trip to the Middle East and pleaded the case of the “stateless Palestinians”. Thatcher was dismissive, telling Le Carré they had trained the IRA bombers who “murdered her friend Airey Neave”.

Le Carré is hilariously brutal about Murdoch. Meeting him in 1991, Le Carré writes that he seems smaller than the last time they met and “has acquired that hasty waddle and little buck of the pelvis with which great men of affairs advance on one another, hand outstretched for the cameras”.
Murdoch brusquely asked Le Carré who killed the tycoon Robert Maxwell, found bobbing in the sea after falling off his yacht? The novelist didn’t know but suggested Israeli intelligence. Murdoch departed soon afterwards. “Estimated duration of lunch: 25 minutes,” he writes.

The novelist is unforgiving of Kim Philby, the British spy and Observer journalistwho escaped to Moscow and betrayed hundreds of agents to the Soviets. He has more sympathy for Edward Snowden. The British public have been “encouraged by spoon-fed media to be docile about violations of its privacy”, he says.

Le Carré has touched on personal themes before, but this is his first full-length memoir. Published on Tuesday by Penguin, it is subtitled Stories From My Life. In it, he acknowledges that his 1963 espionage thriller The Spy Who Came in From the Cold brought him fame early on, dividing his life into a “before-the-fall and an after-the-fall” moment.

He grew fond of Richard Burton – who starred in the film version of the book – and of Alec Guinness, who played George Smiley in TV adaptations of Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People. Le Carré and Guinness had lunch with the former head of MI6. Guinness noted that the retired spy wore “very vulgar cufflinks” and asked: “Do all our spies wear them?”

Le Carré gives a wry account of his frustrations with the movie industry. “Nobody does silence better than Hollywood,” he writes, describing a string of encounters with notable directors including Fritz Lang and Stanley Kubrick, who promised enthusiastically to turn his books into films but failed to deliver.

Now 84, and twice married, Le Carré concedes: “I have been neither a model husband nor a model father, and am not interested in appearing that way.” He has lived in Cornwall for more than four decades and declines most interview requests and the festival circuit. His output is astonishing: more than 20 novels.

The title of his memoir is a characteristically bleak image. It refers to a sporting club in Monte Carlo that Le Carré visited as a teenager with his father. Pigeons were sent through tunnels, then shot as they took flight above the Mediterranean. Those that survived returned to the casino roof and were sent through the tunnels again. “Quite why this image has haunted me for so long is something the reader is better able to judge than I am,” he writes.