John le Carré died on December 12th

THE HOUSE in Gainsborough Gardens was tall and elegant in the red-brick Hampstead manner, with a background of old trees. In front of the houses stretched a dank lawn strewn with leaves. He walked across it quickly to the locked gate on the Well Walk side, which preserved the hidden feel of the place. He might have been going to lunch at the Wells, where the rhubarb crumble was reliably good. But too many people knew John le Carré there, spotted his upright stance and far-sighted gaze, the fine greying head, and might start conversations. Today he had a different assignation. He turned not left but right, towards the Heath.

A weather-boarded barn stood by East Heath Road, with a bench on which it was said that Keats had sat and wept. On the other side of the road, a loose-pebble track curved down through an avenue of limes. A few dog-walkers wandered on it. It was here, in “Smiley’s People”, the third part of his George Smiley trilogy, that General Vladimir had been shot in the face by Moscow agents. And here, just off the path, in a crevice in a large old lime tree, Smiley had found the cigarette packet that held his first small clue.

On the avenue, his own pace slowed. Instinctively he began to practise tradecraft, or writing craft. He became observant, guarded, watchful, keeping to the edge of the path where the limes slightly obscured him. Writers and spies shared the same “corrosive eye”, as Graham Greene put it: that wish to penetrate the surface to the centre and truth of things.

In fact he had not been in “the circus” for long; just a few years, running low-grade agents into eastern Europe and then working out of the British embassy in Bonn, before Kim Philby, a celebrated double agent, exposed him. He was a writer who, very briefly, had been a spy. Yet he felt he had been recruited to the secret world from childhood, as Conrad was to the sea. He had acquired the comforting habit of cover-stories to try to account for a father who was in jail one moment and at Ascot the next: an epic conman from whom his mother bolted when he was five. He had joined the secret service for all kinds of romantic reasons, to do some good for society, and to discover how the world was really run; but also because he felt corporate attachment offered him a family’s protection. To some extent it did. But he soon found with Alec Leamas, the pretend defector whom Smiley in “The Spy who Came in From the Cold” sent into East Germany and ultimately to his death, that spies were not priests or saints, but “a squalid procession of vain fools…sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives”. In the cold war Western agents, aping Soviet ones, walked on the thinnest moral ice. It often broke.

At the end of the avenue lay a games field, with a goalpost askew and a few boys playing. Their bicycles were sprawled by the path. Across the field stood a small green tin pavilion, like a bus shelter. There Smiley had found, at head-height, the shiny MI6 drawing pin whose message was Proceed to the rendezvous, no danger sighted, together with Vladimir’s chalked reply. Here, too, Smiley’s shadow walked. A plump figure, balding, bespectacled and breathtakingly ordinary; keenly observant, wise, cunning, yet also shy, embarrassed by life, convinced that his clothes were wrong. He had emerged in 1961, in “Call for the Dead”, a fully-fledged combination of several people from the le Carré past; he took his bow in 2017, giving lectures in “A Legacy of Spies”. And he had exposed his creator, through the books and films and especially the tv series of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, to the full force of literary fame.

It was not anything he wanted. “John le Carré” was a mask for a man, as much as a necessity for an author in the intelligence service. As a writer, like a spy, he needed to go incognito, sit at a back table, slip through doors, avoid the crowd. If he wanted he could unleash in a warm, military tone a fund of good stories, such as his near-seduction at 16, in front of her husband, by a countess at dinner in Panama, which drew him to the country later to set another novel. Telling stories was what he did. Now he was pumped for information which his vestigial loyalty to the service forbade him to speak of, as well as the mysteries he knew nothing about. (“Who killed Robert Maxwell?” Rupert Murdoch asked him, suddenly, when they lunched together.) And he was presumed to be at a loss when the cold war ended, with his great preoccupying subject gone.


On the contrary, its end delighted him. And history was far from over. The players changed, the game went on. He had focused on the cold war from the 1960s because it was the overriding drama of the age. Others quickly succeeded it: the arms trade (“The Night Manager”), the war on terror (“Absolute Friends”), Big Pharma’s misdeeds in Africa (“The Constant Gardener”). Trump’s America and Johnson’s Britain, with their spoon-fed media and nationalistic duping of the public, appalled him equally. Each deserved excoriation in a book in which the characters acted out a global argument, just as the closed society of spies had been, for him, a theatre of the world.

So there could be no end to writing, and that, on this gradually clearing morning, was his purpose on the Heath. Notebooks weighed down his pockets; no laptop for him, but the unmechanised thrill of shaping the words with his pen. He had other scribbling places, particularly his seaside house at St Buryan in Cornwall, where no one knew who he was. North London was more difficult, as joggers panted past and trains rattled distantly on the Overground. He was making for a particular bench that stood separate from its companions, tucked under a spreading tree.

There he worked away. And it seemed to him from time to time, as he looked up, that a figure observed him. Balding, plump, quite unlike him physically, but with the same tendency to want to hide, and the same occasional sharp pain from seeing too much. Even at a distance he could spot him, from the way he thoughtfully cleaned his glasses with the fat end of his tie. A large part of himself, too, had gone to make up Smiley. He was now walking towards him, his lenses gleaming like mirrors.

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