John Le Carré: A legacy of a most honourable spy writer

John Le Carré speaking at the German embassy in 2017.

John Le Carré speaking at the German embassy in 2017. - Credit: German Embassy London/Wikimedia Commons

“When I am in Hampstead there is a bench I favour on the Heath, tucked under a spreading tree and set apart from its companions, and that’s where I like to scribble. I have only ever written by hand.”

So wrote John Le Carré in The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, conjuring an image familiar to readers of spy fiction. The lone man, sat on the bench, engrossed in whatever he is holding. Perhaps it is the Times crossword or a Christmas card to a distant relative - or a disguise to mask his true purpose. Or perhaps it is the beginnings of an international bestseller.

The image is cliché, perhaps, but it is so largely because of the influence John Le Carré - real name David Cornwell - had on popular culture. In many ways it was his writing that defined our ideas of espionage during the Cold War.

Another feature of the “man on bench” image is stillness. 

Le Carré’s work is often contrasted with the all-action adventures of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, with desk work and grubby flats favoured over casinos and secret lairs. 

This is not to say his books are not page turners. They really are.

READ MORE: Obituary: Espionage novelist John Le Carré dies of pneumonia aged 89

Of course, the stillness is surface.

Most Read

The stories presented to the reader are often those of distrust and suspicion, chess masters desperate to identify their opponents.

Sometimes it can seem that “the game” of spying leaves no option but nihilism - characters on the verge of asking: “What is it all for, really, when you get down to it?”

But Le Carré was far from a nihilist. He was a principled man.  He was outspoken against the War in Iraq and the behaviour of Donald Trump.  

He identified his beliefs as “compassionate conservatism” (an irksome phrase) but it is clear from his views on Brexit that he was no small-c conservative. He bristled at phony nostalgia. For a clear picture of those views, pick up his final page turner, Agent Running in the Field.