Le Carré was right
I used to have a pet theory – outlined in the LRB in 2007 – to explain why John le Carré’s later stuff didn’t have, as I saw it, the lightning-in-a-bottle quality of the novels he wrote in the 1960s and 1970s. He had been wrongfooted by social change. More specifically, the declining pay and prestige of most kinds of public service meant that intelligence bureaucracies could no longer serve in the same way as a microcosm of the dark heart of the British establishment. Plummy chaps who, pre-Thatcher, would have made their way from prep schools, public schools and Oxbridge to the higher reaches of the BBC, the Civil Service or MI6 – the chaps whose speech and behaviour le Carré had observed with an outsider-insider’s intentness when he was starting out – were overwhelmingly concentrated now in financial services and commercial law.
And no one spoke the way his characters did any more. In 2007 there had been a Labour government for ten years. ‘Blairite wannabe-classless slur’, as le Carré put it, was the language of power. Even James Bond, as played by Daniel Craig, was speaking a slimmed-down RP. The spy chiefs and senior civil servants who appeared on the news were managerial types without detectable donnish mannerisms. Journalists presented themselves as slick professionals. Jerry Westerby, the shambling upper-class hack who speaks a non-PC schoolboy pidgin in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, may or may not have been a recognisable caricature in the 1970s, but either way he belonged to an extinct social species. That a joke figure like Boris Johnson could win fame with a similar act only underscored the point.
Above all, it seemed to me, romantic nationalism, which le Carré’s characters were still motivated by, just wasn’t much of a thing in the contemporary UK. So it made sense that I preferred the early novels, where I had more confidence in his depictions of a world that had mostly vanished before I was born. Perhaps a problem with the later novels was the anachronistic persistence of this pre-EU membership, pre-decimal world: a world in which power was wielded by men with extraordinary vowel sounds who valued low-grade verbal wit over technical expertise; and the general population could be mobilised around unfriendly views on foreigners; and there were hard borders everywhere; and British people were nostalgic about the Second World War rather than, say, the Beatles. Le Carré, whose early novels were part of the cultural convulsion that destroyed that world, should have known better. Or so it seemed to me in 2007.
My pet theory hasn’t worn very well. David Cameron shot some of it down. Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg did the rest. And perhaps it was always a rationalisation of the feeling you have in your twenties and thirties that understanding your own cohort’s codes and assumptions means you understand the world in general better than your elders do. Now it’s too late for me to apologise to le Carré, but on Monday I re-read The Looking Glass War (1965) and found that he was a good deal more prescient than I was.
That novel is about a group of ageing, dysfunctional fantasists, obsessed with the glories of the Second World War, who launch a doomed operation against a European target on the basis of misunderstandings, wishful thinking and internal political squabbles. Everybody dies or comes to a sudden chilling realisation that, of the operation’s two nominal leaders, one is completely detached from reality, and the other is a clever manipulator – though not as clever as he thinks he is – whose studied eccentricity conceals a frightening inner emptiness. Their target is a non-existent East German rocket site rather than access to the Single Market, but otherwise it’s a Cold War classic that also stands up as a state-of-the-nation novel in December 2020.