Revisiting Smiley & Co.

Last month I re-read John le Carré’s classic story of betrayal in Britain’s security services, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It must be almost forty years since I first picked it up, since my Pan paperback edition came out in 1978. I do not believe I completely understood what was going on at the time, although the television serial produced by the BBC a year later made things a little easier. Now, with my deep background reading into espionage and intelligence, it was much easier to understand the plot, and pick up the threads and references.

A now obvious theme that had not made much impression on me earlier was the veiled introduction into the plot of real-life incidents and characters. Thus Rikki Tarr’s involvement with the Soviet agent Irina, and her sudden extraction back to the Soviet Union, echo the Volkov incident, where the would-be Soviet defector and his wife were spirited out of Turkey to be killed in Moscow, after Philby had betrayed them. The Arabist father of Bill Haydon (‘our latter-day Lawrence of Arabia’) is a clear pointer to the political persuasions of Kim Philby’s own father, Harry St. John.  The Oxford club of ‘Optimates’ (‘an upper-class Christ Church club, mainly old Etonian’ – Chapter 29) while of conservative leanings, is a clear analog of the Apostles, based at Trinity College, Cambridge, where most of the Cambridge Spies were recruited. The formidable Connie Sachs was probably based on the redoubtable Milicent Bagot, who maintained scrupulous records on Communist suspects for MI5, and had a phenomenal memory. Under-Secretary Oliver Lacon, with his ‘tight-lipped moral complacency’, has all the patrician smoothness of Gladwyn Jebb, who was indeed responsible for liaising between the Foreign Office and the security services. Even the workname of Jim Prideaux, Ellis, is a sharp pointer to the infamous Soviet mole, ELLI, never accurately identified, but whose brief syllables provide eerie hints to the various characters who have been at one time or another suspected of being the person behind the cryptonym: Guy Liddell, Graham Mitchell, Roger Hollis, and the undeservedly overlooked Leo Long (‘LL’). Le Carré even introduces a naval intelligence officer named ‘Lilley’ (Chapter 16) to extend the joke and enrich the pageant.

But one aspect that newly impressed me was Le Carré’s skills in characterization, especially his use of different speech registers both to describe and distinguish the intelligence officers. This was a strength that I had picked up in the last Le Carré novel that I read, The Russia House. The idioms and manners of speaking that anyone uses are influenced by many factors: family, locality, education, friends, associations, interests, etc. If taken to extremes, such registers become mere caricature, or may be applied for humorous affect if out of character (for instance, if I started using Cockney rhyming-slang in an exaggerated manner, or used Bertie Wooster vernacular). If deployed subtly, however, they can add much credibility and distinctiveness. Hence Ricky Tarr’s cheeky-chappie sub-American slang makes him instantly memorable and situates him somewhat out of his element among the refined bosses of the Circus; Toby Esterhase’s struggles with British idioms plant him carefully as an anglicised mid-European intellectual, and thus an outsider; Percy Alleline’s sarcastic and pompous banter ( his ‘one instrument of communication’) sharply sets him up as the boss who keeps control by reminding his underlings of their inferior status; Roy Bland’s ‘caustic cockney voice’ incorporates disrespect; Bill Haydon’s sharp-witted barbs and lively images can be seen as a screen to conceal his real character and actions.

And then there is Smiley himself.  His character comes through not so much in his idiom, but more in his manner of speaking, understated, with well-placed silences, and tentative questions, all encouraging his interlocutor to speak more. Perhaps, when most intelligence officers are represented by Le Carré as having all the traditional human failings of ambition, jealousy, and disloyalty, he is everything we should expect in an intelligence officer responsible for guarding the realm – solid, dry-witted, pragmatic, apolitical, dogged, analytical – and a little boring. Those plodding and unspectacular attributes are what enable him to solve the problem. Yet Smiley’s triumph in uncovering the mole Bill Haydon is undermined by Le Carré in a discomforting – and, to me, unconvincing  ̶  way. Even though Smiley has been cuckolded by Haydon, on the disclosure of the latter’s treachery, he still harbours doubts about Haydon’s guilt:  ‘Yet there was a part of him that rose already in Haydon’s defence. Was not Bill also betrayed?’ (Chapter 36)  Le Carré continues: ‘Thus Smiley felt not only disgust; but, despite all that the moment meant to him, a surge of resentment against the institutions he was supposed to be protecting.’ But Le Carré presents those institutions as being the officers of the Circus: ‘such men invalidate any contract: why should anyone be loyal to them?’ To portray a traitor as someone who has inexplicably been betrayed by the survival of decent life after the ruins of war and the onslaughts of two varieties of totalitarianism, yet somehow because of that succumbs to a bankrupt and cruel creed, is a bit rich. Haydon was no hero for the communist cause, no purist like Milovan Djilas, carping at the obtuseness of Stalin and the extravagances of Tito.

Not only that. For it is part of Le Carré’s grudge (as is clear from some of his later works, as well as from Adam Sisman’s 2015 biography of him) that the Western system was as essentially corrupt as was Communism, and their security services thus equally at fault. And here the author falls into the familiar territory of moral equivalence, providing the false contrast of ‘capitalism’ with ‘communism’, and suggesting that there is really nothing to choose between them. As he has Haydon say: ‘In capitalist America economic repression of the masses is institutionalised to a point which not even Lenin could have foreseen’, something that simply sounds absurd coming from someone as cultured and intelligent as Haydon. ‘He had often wondered which side he would be on if the test ever came; after prolonged reflection he had finally to admit that if either monolith [sic!] had to win the day, he would prefer it to be the East.’ What nonsense! It is a very unconvincing portrait: on the one hand suggesting Haydon is a victim, and then giving him the most vapid ideological reasons for staying with Stalinism. The logic is as sophistical as one of the main reasons that Kim Philby, Le Carré’s model for Haydon, gave for his own loyalty, and clearly echoes it. Despite ‘some things going badly wrong in the Soviet Union’, as Philby wrote in My Secret War, ‘finally, it is a sobering thought that, but for the power of the Soviet Union and the Communist idea, the Old World, if not the whole world, would now be ruled by Hitler and Hirohito.’ It is as if Le Carré (who declared that he blamed Philby for his premature exit from SIS), unconvinced by Philby’s feeble defence of Communism, was unable to come up with any better rationale to explain Haydon’s treachery, and had to resort to a message of Haydon as someone with a justifiable chip on his shoulder, over which Smiley is taken in.

Moreover, Le Carré falls for that familiar Marxist-Leninist dogma, weakly adopting the terminology of that argument. The struggle was not between capitalism and communism, but between totalitarianism and liberal democracy, with its pluralist instincts and necessarily messy approach to making policy. The West was no ‘monolith’. The problem with resisting dogmatic and pernicious creeds is that liberal democracies struggle to defend themselves confidently, as it is difficult to make an ideological virtue out of such fragmentation, out of pluralism itself. But it was the defence of such liberal institutions as parliamentary democracy, universal suffrage, regular open elections, an independent press, freedom of religion and conscience, trial by jury, etc. that Smiley was supposed to be guarding – not the transient careers and reputation of the officers of an intelligence service. In fact it was a misguided loyalty to MI5 that encouraged Liddell, Hollis and Dick White to attempt to cover up their mistakes – not only about the discovery of moles in their midst – but also (for example) over Klaus Fuchs, and force their boss, Percy Sillitoe, to lie to the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, over their surveillance of the atom spy, a deception that has not been properly revealed to this day.

Some of the brave defectors from the Soviet Union realised this self-delusion better than their emancipated cousins resident in the West. One of these, Ismail Akhmedov, in his memoir In and Out of Stalin’s GRU wrote, of Philby: ‘To completely close the circle he will pass into oblivion, into an empty abyss during one of his drunken hours, as did Burgess, and join the company of butchers, henchmen, headhunters – call them what you will – the despised enemies of the unfortunate Soviet people still yearning for their freedom.’  Philby’s hypocrisy was revealed in a video recording discovered and broadcast a few weeks ago. He was recorded giving a lecture on spycraft to some STASI (East German secret police) officers in 1981 (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bs2y2TEHBWg . His final lesson for them? ‘Never admit to anything if you are caught.’ But Philby never had to undergo torture, or threats to his family of he did not admit his guilt, or the prospect of a shot in the back of the head without trial. If MI5 and Special Branch had found convincing proof of his guilt, he probably would not have been prosecuted successfully without a confession and an embarrassing trial, and would likely have been told instead (as was Anthony Blunt, in effect): ‘Why don’t you quietly retire, old boy, as we don’t want any nasty mess and bad publicity for the service, do we?’.

Yet this bias of indulgence towards Stalin’s despotism is well-entrenched in Western intellectual life. I have just read David Lodge’s ingenious, but bizarre and ultimately unfulfilling, ‘novel’ about the love-life of H. G. Wells, A Man of Parts, where Lodge offers the following observation: ‘It took him [Wells] a long time, for instance, to recognize how completely Stalin’s police state had betrayed the ideals [sic] of the Russian Revolution. But at least he was never taken in by Mussolini and Hitler, as many British pundits and politicians were.’ ‘At least’?? Who was ever taken in by that strutting Italian socialist-cum-fascist showman? As for Hitler, the number of intellectuals (or pundits or politicians) truly taken in by his ideology was dwarfed by the number of useful idiots and fellow-travellers who were duped by Stalin. Certainly, the odious message of Mein Kampf was a dire warning of worse to come, and the persecution of Jews was well under way, but, at the outset of WWII, the quantity of massacres and murders perpetrated by Stalin was orders of magnitude greater than that for which Hitler had thus far been responsible.

A strong residue of sympathy endures for the great Communist ‘experiment’, and Marxist apologists are still all too ready to overlook the famines, the purges, the Gulag – and the Maoist Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge . . .  In fact, wherever the communist attempt to make a ‘new man’ has taken root, it has meant the elimination of millions who either chose the wrong parents, or defied the new ideology, or who were simply innocent victims caught up in the terror. Unfortunately, it appears that John le Carré, who, while having welcomed the fall of the Berlin Wall, continues to rail against capitalism as he maximises his substantial royalty cheques, did not, and still fails to, understand the relationship between free enterprise and liberal democracy. But he tells a rattling good yarn, and has a great ear for the registers of speech.

This month’s Commonplace entries appear here.  (May 31, 2016)

2 Comments

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2 Responses to Revisiting Smiley & Co.

  1. Michael

    One other echo of real life in TTSS, perhaps not referred directly to by you out of self-modesty, is the given (‘Christian’?) name of the boss of the Circus, Percy Alleline, and his real-life predecessor, Sillitoe.

  2. coldspur

    Indeed! Good observation.

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