Truth as strange as fiction

The notoriously private British thriller writer and former secret agent John le Carre opens up in his memoir - or does he?


By John le Carre

Penguin Viking/Paperback/ 310 pages/$32.05 with GST/ Books Kinokuniya

Donald Trump's successful bid to live in the White House for the next four years now has many people on tenterhooks, chiefly because his callous, tempestuous and fractious ways are seen as unpresidential.

But a skim through John le Carre's latest book will show everyone just how hazy the idea of a leader of high morals can be.

From Britain's Iron Lady, Mrs Margaret Thatcher, to Palestine's Yasser Arafat, le Carre's acute recalling of his many face-to-face chats with world leaders show them up as being human and so fallible - even when they are not under pressure.


  • 1 Who makes a good secret agent?

    2 How do you get someone to tell you more than what he would usually reveal?

    3 Why are some people more adept than others at engaging the public meaningfully?

    4 How should you approach anyone in power?

    5 How do various cultures handle secrets?

Long-time British novelist le Carre, whose real name is David Cornwell, is now 85 years old and has 23 novels to his name, most of them bestsellers, beginning with the classic 1962 mystery, A Murder Of Quality.

Younger readers might know his work better from the Emmy Award-winning television series The Night Manager, starring hunky Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, with a cameo by le Carre.

As a novel, 1993's The Night Manager is among le Carre's weakest, along with - arguably - 1996's The Tailor Of Panama, which was also made into a 2001 film starring Pierce Brosnan and Geoffrey Rush.

Le Carre was a British secret agent for MI6 in the German cities of Bonn and Berlin from 1958 to 1964. Which was how he came to see then British prime minister Harold Macmillan, in mid-September 1963, being dismissive of defence experts and telling German official Fritz Erler that "you and I know that the bombs will fall wherever they're going to fall".

The exasperated Erler told le Carre afterwards: "This man is no longer capable of government." Three weeks later, Mr Macmillan resigned.

Le Carre had started out spying for Britain as a teenager, but apparently took a break to complete his education at the universities of Bern and Oxford in the 1950s.

Yet, years after he had given up subterfuge, the people he met never let him forget his shadowy former career. To all those who insisted, and still insist, that he was their "guru" on "all matters of secret intelligence", he protested mightily that he was akin to "a junior mechanic" with a "hyperactive imagination and zero experience" on the Grand Prix race track.

With his reputation growing, fuelled further by his best-selling books, the doors he knocked on in the name of researching his books were often flung open in welcome.

Among those embracing him was Palestinian leader Arafat, whose stubble le Carre found was "not bristly, but silky fluff" and smelled of Johnson's baby powder. Mr Arafat, however, spurned him years later without any given reason.

Another leader who invited le Carre into her circle was Mrs Thatcher. But when le Carre pleaded the stateless Palestinians' cause to her, she retorted: "Every day, people appeal to my emotions. You can't govern that way. It simply isn't fair."

She then reminded him that it was the Palestinians who had trained the Irish Republican Army bombers, and among their victims was her dear friend and fellow politician Airey Neave.

This memoir, for the most part, focuses on le Carre's fact-finding trips to countries as far-flung as Cambodia, Kenya and Lebanon to write his espionage thrillers, notably 1983's The Little Drummer Girl, 1999's Single & Single and 2001's The Constant Gardener.

His being intrepid, however, was not from a yen to travel, but from a gaffe he made in his 1974 novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In it, he waxed lyrical about the scenic cruise on the Star Ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island, despite having never visited Hong Kong.

As the book went to press, he finally stopped over in Hong Kong and found that the two points were also now connected by an underground tunnel.

In The Pigeon Tunnel, he mused: "It told me that in midlife I was getting fat and lazy and living off a fund of past experience that was running out. It was time to take on unfamiliar worlds."

Such plain, unflinching confessions - and there are many in this bracing memoir - are his most winning quality, and an assurance of sorts that he is telling what he believes to be the truth, although he has excelled at blurring fact and fiction for more than 50 years.

Case in point: Turning his ne'er- do-well father, Ronnie, into Rick Pym, his character in 1986's A Perfect Spy, with himself as Pym's son Magnus.

In The Pigeon Tunnel, he says he could make the book work only by making the son much worse than the father, which was the reverse in real life.

This book, then, is one giant question: Which is stranger - le Carre's truth or fiction?

As he teases on page 6: "To the creative writer, fact is raw material, not his taskmaster, but his instrument and his job is to make it sing. Real truth lies, if anywhere, not in facts, but in nuance."

The reader will have to mind his gaps, then, if fiction is not to trump fact.

Meet an expert on China

The Hong Kong-based Dutch historian Frank Dikotter is in town and will be talking about his latest book, The Cultural Revolution, at The Big Read Meet tomorrow.

Join him and senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai for a discussion on the lasting impact of this widespread tragedy in communist China, from 6.30pm at The Pod, Level 16, National Library Board (NLB) headquarters at 100 Victoria Street.

Seats are limited. Sign up at any NLB e-Kiosk or go to

Just a minute


1. British writer and former secret agent David Cornwell, better known by his pen name John le Carre, makes like a latter-day Jules Verne in his memoir. He takes readers on a fascinating romp around the world, introducing them to the assorted real-life characters who inspired his 23 novels, mostly on espionage.

These characters include the heroic Frenchwoman Yvette Pierpaoli, who rescued destitute children in Cambodia orphaned by the Khmer Rouge's carnage and who died while speeding refugees to safety in Kosovo in April 1999. He made her Tessa in his 2001 book ,The Constant Gardener.

There is also Murat Kurnaz, a German of Turkish descent, who was wrongfully detained in Guantanamo Bay for five years. In 2006, le Carre meets Kurnaz in his hotel room in Bremen, helps persuade the German government to let Kurnaz live in Germany again and later bases Melik, a character from his 2008 book A Most Wanted Man, after Kurnaz.

2. This book is a model of how to write concisely as le Carre covers a lot of ground in short paragraphs of cut-glass, unvarnished sentences brimming with telling details. He is also canny about the short attention spans of readers and so restricts each chapter to no more than 10 pages, on average.

3. The author is just as shrewd about what sells these days, and so makes his memories about the shadow worlds of spying relevant for new generations by sharing his views on the American whistle-blower Edward Snowden and what it means to live under constant surveillance today.

4. Those eager for insights into such luminaries as British author and former spy Graham Greene, media mogul Rupert Murdoch and Russian dissident and Nobel Peace laureate Andrei Sakharov will find this book a trove of gems. The author trains his acute powers of observation on each of his subjects and recalls, for example, how Mr Murdoch's fingers were heavy with gold rings, which he had to be persuaded to take off, most reluctantly, during his interrogation by British MPs in their phone-hacking inquiry in 2011.


1. He sometimes switches from past to present tenses mid-stream. This will likely be disconcerting for readers who are less adept at the peculiarities of the English language.


1. The reader will often wonder how much of his incredible life is true and how much is made up. That is a jarring note in his otherwise mellifluous "aria", which is how he refers to anything he has to say.

Fact file

The spy who began life in the cold

On Oct 19, 1931, in a house without electricity or heating, Briton Ronald "Ronnie" Cornwell was haranguing his wife Olive "Wiggly" Glassey, who was in labour, to give birth to their second son, pronto.

As that son, whom they named David and who is now better known by his pen name John le Carre, recalls in his 2016 memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, his father burst out: "God in Heaven, Wiggly, why can't you get a move on for once!"

Heavily in debt then, he was anxious for them to dodge the bailiff, who would soon seize their belongings.

So he had a cab waiting for them to make their getaway. Once David came into the world, his father threw him into the taxi's boot with all their possessions and sped off to a new hiding place.

As le Carre says in The Pigeon Tunnel: "I have been born and, like a brand-new foal, am already on the run. I have been on the run ever since."

That was because his father was a conman, gambler and philanderer, racking up debts worldwide, even serving time in Singapore, Hong Kong, Jakarta and Zurich.

When le Carre was five, his mother abandoned him and his elder brother Anthony or, as le Carre accused her of doing later in a 1993 interview with The Independent's Zoe Heller: "You left me with the monster and ran away into the woods."

Thereafter, he and his brother were shunted from relatives to various boarding schools, with le Carre having to pay his school fees by doing menial jobs, including washing elephants with a long brush.

After graduating from Swit- zerland's University of Bern, thanks to an unsolicited loan from a British television presenter, Britain's intelligence service tapped him to spy for it in Austria.

He later graduated with a First in Modern Languages from Oxford University in 1956, taught at vaunted Eton and then joined Britain's MI6 in 1958, serving in Bonn and Berlin until he resigned in 1964, aged 33.

He put his experience there to good use, writing his first novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, in 1963.

More than 50 years later, he is proud at having been able to live by his pen.

Now 85, the twice-married father of four is said to be a quiet man of old-world graces, one who divides his time between his house on a cliff edge in Cornwall and a townhouse off London's Hampstead Heath.

But press him to reveal more of himself, as Heller did in 1993, and watch him rage at such an invasion of privacy.

As he muses in The Pigeon Tunnel: "Today, I don't remember feeling any affection in childhood except for my elder brother who, for a time, was my only parent. I remember a constant tension in myself that even in great age has not relaxed."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 13, 2016, with the headline 'Truth as strange as fiction'. Subscribe