I Spy David Cornwell

I was rereading ‘Whither Le Carré? [link] earlier this week. I don’t normally re-read things I have written. Certainly not for the fun of it – too much angst and desire to re-write. In this instance I wanted to see what I had thought of David Cornwell and his later work, particularly in the light of appraisals and estimates of the worth of his work prompted by his recent death.

Le Carré continues to be something of a problem for those who felt and shared the patriotism that shone through much of his earlier work, despite the shabby tawdriness of the settings and the bureaucracy that used these flawed human beings for their own nefarious ends. I felt it and appreciated it. As I grew older and experienced some of it myself, I realised that it is possible to be a patriot and yet not a narrow nationalist, but it is a difficult line to tread. As time went on it became apparent that something had slipped from Le Carré’s world view that had sustained him in his love of country despite its foibles and failings. His anger with the way global corporations were exploiting the world’s weak, the misuse of people of principle and determination for less than democratic ends and the abandonment of that post WWII compact of a better, freer, more united Europe eroded the feeling in his books that we were better than the opposition even though we were far from perfect.

Among his later books were an off piste op against a possible Islamist plot that drops decent operators down the pan when thing go wrong, a tidying up of Peter Guillam’s post Tinker Tailor life and a long shout against Brexit and what has happened to post Imperial Britain in ‘Agent Running in the Field’.

Le Carré was never a hankerer for Imperial past. His patriotism was never a narrow jingoistic nationalism. Negotiating a peaceful and prosperous path through that post Imperial search for meaning and a decent place in the world was what seemed to drive his Cold War books. This wasn’t the Great Game any more, it was a low rent wrapping up of past errors and residual horrors while keeping a worse Soviet wolf from the door.

He said he was very happy the Cold War ended when the Soviet Union collapsed and despite the claims of some critics that his work and income would dry up, the post Cold War climate opened Le Carré’s work up to wider, newer horizons. Horizons where the smug winner takes all mentality of some global players made a mockery of the hopes of Cold War participants for a better, safer, more decent world should they win.

Having tilted at global capitalism portrayed in the machinations of big pharma in The Constant Gardener and exposed the willingness of the West to sacrifice its virtues of freedom and fairness in A Most Wanted Man, Le Carré went back to his roots.

He revisited one of the key operators from Tinker Tailor in his post Cold War sojourn in A Legacy of Spies. Peter Guillam is retired in Brittany when events from the past, told in ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, catch up with him. Smiley makes something of a deus ex machina appearance to save his protégé from the Whitehall machine keen to have a scapegoat for actions out of kilter with current values. The query ‘So it was all for England, then? Is met with the response ‘…whose England? Which England? England all alone, a citizen of nowhere? I’m a European.’ Which puts Cornwell’s position into his characters’ words.

His last novel takes this further and ‘Agent Running in the Field’ is a superbly crafted howl against the petty insularity that England embraced in the Brexit vote. The missed opportunity of Russia’s rejection of Communism and the surrender of democracy in the west to a populist flight to charismatic hard men with simplistic answers to complex questions stalks the  novel.

Cornwell kept his skill and his craftsmanship to the end, although he fell out of love with England. I’ve admired his writing since 1975 and I continued to enjoy reading him right until the end. I have shared many of his views on Britain and her place in the world although I think he got some things badly wrong, for example his clash with Salman Rushdie over the right to criticise religion (you do have that right whatever he thought). I think he was a very useful weather gauge for the moral direction of Britain’s travel. It is a sadness that he died before that moral compass could be reset on a direction by which the country could steer a better course.

Thank you David Cornwell.

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