THOUGHTS ON ‘OLD HABITS’

Yesterday saw the last part of ‘Old Habits’ posted here.

I was going to say that the initial idea was about eighteen months old, but that was the last time the original file was altered before I started this rewrite for the blog. The start of the file was easily a couple of years before that, probably more, and the germ of the idea before I put fingers to keyboard was about ten years ago.

I suspect on reflection that some of the implicit timelines underlying the story work on this basis and may be stretched if one assumes it is a current event.

It started life when I was writing a fair bit about the idea of a retired, or semi retired, or possibly disgraced, former intelligence officer of some kind dragged back into a world he used to inhabit. The central conceit being that although he is generally out of touch he can still hack it, and does what he was unable to while he was working and solves, resolves or otherwise brings some sort of closure to a singular problem of his service period that he failed to address successfully then.

We’d all like a second chance at bits of our past I suspect. Or at least we think we would.

It is a story, not real life so I quickly put aside the reality that this type of revisiting past glories would take – an enquiry or a request to come and go through some old paperwork – and took a step into the more unlikely but infinitely more entertaining world of unsanctioned violence.

I was unsure when I first sat down to write this piece, or what became this piece, where it fitted. I had several starts to the basic story and in most of those, his marriage had gone south and his wife, with or without the children, had left him. This cleared the way for a more dramatic beginning chapter with actual violent action on the page, rather than the off stage version in ‘Old Habits’. It happened in his home and was not at all premeditated on his part.

The initial scene of ‘Old Habits’ in the house would easily have fitted in a couple of versions as a later part of the overall idea and could in fact have been the denouement, assuming I could tidy up the clash between absent family and present family.

So the initial draughts of the piece came out at about much the same length as the current short story but were full of discursive pieces, and not just about the type of tea he made. There were extensive tell not show thoughts as he checked and loaded the gun and made sure the electronic kit was working. This moved the action on hardly at all. By the time, in subsequent draughts, I had got him to the woods, where the showdown with the men who had been instrumental in effectively ending his career, originally took place, it was much longer and I was bored.

Looking at the story as I left it, unincorporated into the novel I thought it might belong too, it became clear it had way too much explanation jammed into it. This was probably because I was almost making notes about plot that should/would have been dropped in throughout a much longer novel. Or I was just horribly over writing it.

When I sat down and looked at the explanations, plot devices and meditations, some worked and I have lifted them for incorporation into the still ongoing novel, and some have just been abandoned in the original unfinished piece.

What was left, plus some major changes, e.g. woods to abandoned market hall, have been turned into ‘Old Habits’. I liked the original concept but didn’t want to shoehorn it into what was clearly a different story, nor did I want to write a parallel piece that was exactly the same as the other barring a few details, like a recurring Guy Ritchie film. (If I could be as successful as him from the same shtick all the time I would probably jump at the chance).

So this what it turned into. I wanted it to be short. My short stories nearly always top out way beyond what modern markets seem to want, so I set a rough two thousand word limit on it and still came out c170 words over. Out went explanations of how he had managed to get hold of and retain a revolver and ammunition, more discursion on his taste in tea (believe me it sounded really cool when I wrote it) and most problematic; the detailed explanation of the reason for the act of violence and the description of the reckoning itself.

One kind soul has suggested this emasculates the story and they really wanted a blow by blow, knock ’em down, drag ’em out, description of the encounter in the market and how the bodies were disposed of. For me that is a different, much longer story. To include that would have extended the piece to at least three thousand words and really would have unbalanced it. As part of the bigger piece of writing it would have been entirely appropriate and probably necessary, but I don’t think I could have done it justice in my, admittedly self imposed word limit.

I know because I tried, and ended up with lots and lots of scene setting, explanations, dialogue, flashbacks and action that could have become another novel in themselves, and may do some day. It didn’t however fit in a two thousand word short story.

So for better or worse, there it is.

There are I confess lots of questions about how, what and why. As long as there are no impossible answers that’s what I was aiming for.

OLD HABITS (Pt IV)

Charlotte, Emma and Josh got back late. They’d eaten after the show and taken their time returning. Plenty of time for me to clean up, restore the bike to its original state, dismantle the phone relay and return the weapon and ammunition to the purlin. I was reluctant to dispose of them, but I should probably do that as soon as I got the chance.  The burner phone was already dismantled and buried in the cement foundations of a new bridge, the sim card destroyed. The clothes I had worn in the market had been disposed of in a burning skip.

A week later we were having breakfast in the garden. Josh had managed to turn off his phone and was telling me about his plans to ditch being a YouTuber and be an actor. Emma was reading some social media feed and smirking, it was hard to tell what at. Charlotte was catching up with the local paper.

‘You worked with an Alan Stephens didn’t you?’ she said.

‘Stephens? Alan, yes, years ago.  You met him once at Arthur’s. Why?’

‘He’s missing. They found his car in the woods in Bratby park on the edge of town. No sign of him though. Asking if anyone has seen him to let them know.’

‘I haven’t seen him in twenty years. Thought he went overseas.’

‘Says he came back to take up a “senior civil service post” six months ago.’

‘Probably shacked up with a tart if he’s still the same as when I knew him.’

She shook her head.

‘He’s been missing nearly a week.’

‘Wow!’ Emma said.

‘Not that surprising, people do disappear.’ Charlotte said.

‘What?’

‘You went “wow”‘ I said

‘Yeah, they’ve found a body in the market fire’

‘Oh God!’ Charlotte said. ‘I wonder if it’s Alan?’

‘What?’

‘One of Dad’s work friends is missing, I was just reading about it in the paper.’

‘Was his name Colston?’ Emma asked.

‘No. Alan Stephens.’

‘Wow! That’s weird.’

‘Not that unusual a name.’

‘No it says here “there is speculation that Colston’s death may be linked to the disappearance last week of Alan Stephens, rumoured to have been a Cold War warrior.” Oh my God they think he did it and escaped!’

‘Does it say that?’ Charlotte asked.

‘Well, no, but between the lines that’s what they mean!’

‘Do you think it could be linked?’ Charlotte turned to me.

‘Shouldn’t think so. Sounds like someone taking two and two and making sixteen.’

‘But why would they link them?’

‘Peter Colston used to work with Stephens years ago.’

‘Do you think…?’

‘No. Nobody waits twenty years to settle a score do they? All water under the bridge now. Just a coincidence.’

End

OLD HABITS (Pt III)

The route I followed into town took forty minutes instead of the twenty minute ride on the main roads. I parked the bike in a yard at the back of dilapidated short rent houses. Finding roads and parking not covered by cctv had proved impossible in the second most watched state in the world, but I had avoided all the good quality traffic cameras, and the yard was not an area anyone cared enough about to spend money protecting. A false number plate and a few cosmetic tweaks to the bike covered the rest.

I took the holdall out of the top box and, still wearing the helmet and one piece suit, walked down the alley. I turned right at the end and into a mean back street that ran behind what had once been a market building. Twenty yards down the street I made sure the security cameras I had vandalised a couple of nights before outside the public toilets were still wrecked. Sure enough they remained smashed and the cables missing. I went in and changed. The suit, helmet, gloves and boots replaced the hoodie, jeans and baseball cap in the holdall and I tucked the reunited contents of the attic boxes into an inside pocket of the hoodie.

The phone rang.

I looked at the incoming number. Emma.

I let it ring again a couple of times then answered before the voice mail system kicked in.

‘Hello?’ I said as groggily as I could.

‘Dad. Did I wake you?’

‘It’s all right love. Everything all right?’

‘No I’m bored, Mum’s being so embarrassing and Josh is being a little swine.’

‘How’s the show?’

‘We’ve only just got here Dad. What time do you think it is? I’ve got hours of this to put up with. Why couldn’t I have stayed with you?’

‘Because it’s a nice treat for Mum to have her two lovely children with her and share a joyous day out.’

‘Sarcastic much.’

I had to think of a way to stop this conversation. It had served its purpose. The link through from my phone back in the garage had worked. It would show my phone communicating with Emma’s while based in the area of our house at a time that made it impossible for me to have done what was about to happen. But I needed to move fast now.

Charlotte’s work friends the Watsons saved me.

‘Oh Dad, sorry got to go, Leila’s here. Got to ask her what happened to Jack.’

‘I thought he left her to join the Army or something?’

‘Exactly.’

‘Okay love, enjoy it. The show, not being mean to Leila.’

‘Oh yeah, thanks. Love you, bye.’

The call ended, and with it my link to current normality. I had ten minutes to be in place. The old market was due for renovation. It had been due since the council shut it temporarily ten years previously. Just before the banks crashed and the council’s money went south, invested in Icelandic herring futures or whatever had sounded a good deal three months prior to the crash. A prime centre site like the market would have expected to have been grabbed at a bargain price as the recovery started, but savvy investors could see the writing on the wall for bricks and mortar city centre retail. I pushed my way through a first floor window I had forced a couple of days previously.

They were due in half an hour. I would have preferred to have had more time to scope the place but I had to work with what I had. I’d had my suspicions about Alan at the time but I’d had no real proof until it was too late. He had gone abroad afterwards in triumph and it became clear that Peter Colston had covered for him and carried on the good work. HR had shunted me sideways into ‘something less stressful’ so I needn’t worry too much about all these ‘reds under the bed’. After all we were all friends now in any case. Weren’t we? I pulled the revolver from my pocket and the two spare speed loaders. I’d have preferred long or a machine pistol but again, you have to work with what you have.

OLD HABITS (PtII)

Two large purlins ran the length of the attic. They were bigger than the rest, thicker than they needed to be for the job they were doing if one thought about it for long, but people generally didn’t. At the rear of one, if you knew where to feel, was a knot hole and if you knew the trick you could push and slide a panel back to reveal a lock. I took the key out of my pocket and ducked down and scrabbled to insert it. The lock snicked open and I retrieved a bag from the void before relocking the box.

Downstairs I rinsed a cup with hot water and, sitting at the kitchen table poured my tea. Milk, no sugar. It was just the strength I required to fortify me. I finished the first cup and poured a second. I wondered if I should have had a mug so I needn’t have bothered with refills, but I liked the distraction the effort provided. In any case, if you were going to the bother of leaves and a pot and letting it brew properly, you should use a cup and saucer. Did young people know what these were? Emma occasionally drank coffee and Josh was strictly a cold drinks fan, milk and smoothies when I could persuade him to abandon cola bean based fizzy drinks. Neither saw a need for saucers. I wondered if anything I had done in my life and regarded as important was of relevance to them in this digital, connected, yet Balkanised world?

I took another sip of the Assam, glanced at the bag I had brought down and managed a wry smile. Some things were relevant whatever the zeitgeist. I drew it towards me and opened it. Inside were two boxes, one flat, 4 inches high by about 12 inches by 8 inches and the other about 8 by 5 by 4 inches. I opened them both. Neither was much use without the other.

Half an hour later the boxes, considerably lighter now, were back in the attic hidey hole. Belt and braces. I washed the tea things, and went to the garage. I opened the locker in the corner. Time to change.

I took a last look at the mobile set up in the corner and hoped it would work okay. It had in the test I’d run last week, but it had to work for real this time. The call admin would be useful if things went wrong.

OLD HABITS

This the first of four short instalments. The next three will appear over the next three days.

 

 

I waved Charlotte and the kids off. I’d told them to go out and enjoy the day anyway despite me not feeling great. Emma had fixed me with a glare when I told them, the thought of being alone in the car and at the show with her mother and brother not a hit apparently. Josh gave a shrug and carried on massacring something or someone on his phone. As long as there was an internet connection via some platform, the rest of the world was irrelevant to him.

Charlotte was sympathetic ,although concerned no doubt that it may mark another turn in my recently fluctuating moods, tinged with exasperation at being left to deal alone with the two children on what was definitely a double team task. I was sorry but under the circumstances it had to be this way.

As the car turned the corner at the top of the drive I took a slow look round at the garden. The grass needed cutting. I stepped back indoors and put the chain up on the front door.

I had actually developed the weariness and headache I’d described when I’d dipped out of the trip to the outdoor performance of whatever it was we were supposed to be seeing. Too much method acting. I shook myself like a dog to break the mood and went to make a cup of tea. I put the kettle on and looked into the cupboard. What was it to be? Not an Earl Grey, too light and frivolous, not a China tea, those were Charlotte’s. I was a confirmed Indian tea drinker, glad of the Empire’s interference in the Chinese monopoly of production in the nineteenth century. I may not have approved of imperialism but in this case I preferred the flavour of the resultant brew no matter the means. Something robust and fortifying. I was tempted by the lure of bog standard builders’, but there are limits even in extremis, and robust needn’t mean brutal. I went for the Assam.

I warmed the pot, threw the water down the sink, spooned the tea in and then poured the boiling water on the leaves. Loose leaf was a tad twee perhaps but I could use the brewing time to prepare a few items.

At the end of the landing was a trapdoor in the ceiling. I took the stick from the back bedroom and used it to trigger the latch mechanism that held the trap in place. It swung down and I reversed the stick, using the hook on the other end to snag the ring on the bottom of the collapsed ladder and pulled it into place. I went into the attic and turned on the light. Boxes of packing from our move here ten years ago were in one corner, opened, assessed as not required immediately and in time consigned by indifference and a shrug to another lifetime. Around those boxes, were kids toys, put aside but definitely not abandoned, oh no, waiting the call to fight again in a battle with the forces of adulthood, but not now, not yet. I moved around a plastic bag from which a dozen reproving beady glass eyes stared at me. Why us? Why here? Were we too not loved once? I felt a tear pricking at my eye.

The tea was brewing and I really had to get what I came for. The time for reflecting on the lost past was gone. I’d done that. Now I needed to do something about it.

JUSTICE: 0 TECHNOLOGY: 3

I was amazed the other day when listening to BBC Radio 4 to hear that a bill, The Domestic Abuse Bill, would make those released from prison after serving a sentence for domestic abuse, subject to compulsory lie detector tests.

I think domestic abuse is a serious crime that should be dealt with by the law as severely as any other type of assault or coercion. Perhaps more so given the breach of trust involved in the offence in addition to the actual physical or mental harm caused.

However, introducing, or rather extending, the use of an imperfect technology like the polygraph into the English legal system marks another step in the thoughtless and naive acceptance of technology into realms it has no right to invade.

Polygraphs don’t work.

Who says so?

The government.

The Home Office use the tests to monitor high risk sex offenders. They say, with apparent pride for some reason, that they are ‘89%’ accurate.

Advocates (largely meaning those who sell the technology) claim ‘between’ 80 % and 90% accuracy, when administered by expert ‘professionals’.

When we get to the debacle of things like the Jeremy Kyle Show, or the US Intelligence community’s use in the past to give themselves a false sense of security (Walker-Whitworth anybody?) you can see how they really perform in the field.

They aren’t allowed as evidence in UK courts and we should stop the thin edge of the wedge in their acceptance in law enforcement circles right now. Before it’s too late. It always starts with ‘a trial’, in ‘unique circumstances’ but before you know where you are the argument s being made: `well it’s used in sex offence and domestic abuse situations, why not….’

Already employment in law in the UK allows their use, which frankly is an abuse which should be stopped immediately.

Of course this is old hat analogue tech. The opportunities for invading civil liberties with digital are much more exciting (worrying).

 

Take facial recognition software. Trials done (without input from the great unwashed British Public who were the victims) then implemented on the nod. Now the Met are using it and it is spreading.  Of course chaotic situations that have pertained in the West since 9/11 and 7/7 have meant that anyone wondering aloud about civil liberties have been hit with the big stick of ‘A government’s first responsibility is the safety of its citizens’.

Exactly.

And the best way of doing that is using the existing technology, legislation and services rather than running off and installing the next bit of kit that may be abused in future by governments of unknown provenance.

And of course the tech doesn’t work either. The only independent study on the Met’s system showed it was accurate in just 19% of cases. The argument of course is that live deployment and tweaking in the field will improve the system. Given the use facial recognition software is put to in repressive regimes like China I am not sure that fills me with confidence.

 

And of course the one beloved of students, the ‘anti-plagiarism’ software of Turnitin and their ilk.

Again, it is an intrusive and abusive system introduced to crack one problem that is being misused for lots of others. To be fair to Turnitin, they are quite clear (somewhat disingenuously) that ‘Turnitin actually does not check for plagiarism in your work.’ When trying to sell their ‘nice’ side to students.

I say disingenuous because they also say they provide ‘Holistic online tools that support better writing – from preventing plagiarism and ensuring originality and authorship…’ and as the Daily Telegraph reported on 1 February 2018, their software is designed to catch ‘contract cheating.’

Again I am wholeheartedly in favour of people having to do their own work. But as usual a hammer introduced to crack a nut smashes a lot of other fingers.

If the company being used has a database which has seen the essay before it will catch it. Good stuff. But it also catches lots of other things – like to quote your sources? And who doesn’t – that gets flagged as a similarity- it better be or something has gone wrong hasn’t it? Paraphrasing can also be flagged and sometimes common three word phrases that we all use every day get the ‘I think I’ve seen this before’ treatment.

Of course used appropriately as recommended by the purveyors of this stuff and everything will be all right won’t it?

Well possibly, if Universities can use it properly and exercise a bit of common sense.

Go online and search for Turnitin and similar (see what I did there?) systems’ queries and worries by students and you will see something very different. The bald ‘similarity score’ triggering hearings and despair, unjust proceedings where accusers are the judge in their own cases and more.

 

Misuse of a blunt similarity tracker, intrusive scanning of innocent people’s faces and letting a failed system of technological measurement take over normal legal procedures are the obvious errors of our love affair with technology. We have been conned into welcoming them as some sort of saviours rather than treating them as the threats they undoubtedly are.

What a Brave New World we live in!

[I nicked that last bit!]

Any One For Dickens?

In September last year I was having a discussion with another writer about various things, authorial voice being one of them and Charles Dickens being another. I find Dickens quite a pain to read. I know that is heresy in many literary circles, but the method of first publication for most of his stories shows clearly in his style. Slightly rambling, padded and best taken in small chunks. I’m surprised in fact that he isn’t more popular now. The modern box set for me suffers from much the same problem. These are series meant to be watched one episode at a time, once per week for many weeks. To consume them (and I use the word advisedly) at one sitting is for me complete overload.

I won’t belabour the comparison.

The other writer suggested that it wasn’t as easy as it looked to write like Dickens and wondered if I could write in a similar style?

Rambling, padded, overwritten and, let’s be honest, boring? Easy, I was already there!

So I wrote a Dickens short story pastiche, or at least that’s how it started out. I lost the voice a bit I know because I became engrossed in the plot. It is a sort of light hearted reworking of A Christmas Carol for the Le Carré, post Snowden world.  It starts off with several of the tropes of Dickens Christmas ghost story but does slightly segue into more of a comedy spy story.

The upshot was that I only half fulfilled my allotted task of parodying Dickens, but I did on the other hand find myself with a short story, 3,200 words long, which I felt was quite good. I enjoyed reading it again a few months back when I came across it languishing on a flash drive next to my computer. I read it to the other writer and they were only moderately condemnatory, which from another writer I regard as high praise indeed.

So I looked around for possible outlets. I reckoned seven months lead time might be enough for a short story. Nothing. I have found a ‘competition’ for ghost stories for which I have to give them £5, but calls for stories? Nothing.

Not even non-paying online sites.

Is the (amusing parody) Christmas short ghost story dead? Is the Christmas ghost story dead?

I have somehow recently wandered into writing short stories, having avoided them for years. I suspect this is the product of some obvious but really annoying psychological self programming. When I was playing rugby the approved way of thinking about the actions in the game to come was to envisage making the tackle, getting of the side of the scrum fast, staying with your man. The bad way of preparing was to think, ‘mustn’t miss the tackle, mustn’t stay too long on the scrum, mustn’t drift off outside to soon.’ The idea being that what you think about you do. So even though you are saying ‘don’t’ drift, consciously, you are thinking ’drift’ subconsciously and that’s what you do. Oddly, it works.

I have been thinking of all the reasons I don’t write short stories. So naturally, thinking about them I end up writing them.

On the plus side I’m obviously very bad at judging what is the correct material for a short story as I started one about eighteen months ago which is obviously way too big a subject for a short story as I already have 17,000 words written and I’m nowhere near an ending. Looks like I have another novel on the go. Hope I manage to finish one of them!

Now back to searching for an unsuspecting publisher who doesn’t yet realise they need a 3,200 word parody Dickens comedy ghost /spy story.

Delusions?

[I had a rather strange conversation in the village the other day. I wondered if could be any stranger]

 

I wondered why the guy in the trench coat was hovering. It wasn’t as if there was a lot to hover for in this street. Sure there were still some shops open, but a butchers, two bookmakers and an off licence with whitewashed windows didn’t make for much of a window shopping experience. The bank I was queuing outside had a hole in the wall cash machine and a plastic logo to look at. I wondered about the cash machine. Was that his interest?

The woman in front of me finished her transaction and waited a second for her notification slip to be produced. It appeared and she took a step away from the wall, putting the paper in her purse. I took a step forward and so did the old gentleman in the trench coat. I now saw that he was wearing a hat as well, a strange cross between a flat cap and one of those Breton caps made fashionable in the 1960s by the Beatles, Bob Dylan and other ‘hipster; types. Maybe this was an original. He looked old enough to remember the 60s.

The woman in front of me took another step and so did I. So did the third point in our variable scalene triangle. I was about to put my card in the machine when his presence in my peripheral vision broke that plane of acceptable proximity. I held the card in front of the machine and turned as he spoke.

‘Excuse me do you know if this bank is any good?’

I confess to being a bit surprised. It didn’t seem like the traditional approach of a mugger. Besides he was too old. I did a swift three sixty sweep for accomplices but came up cold. I smiled.

‘Sorry, I’m just using the machine.’ I said

He looked rather crestfallen. I checked again. Just a woman behind me getting a bit agitated at the delay. I decided to offer him a little more. He seemed safe enough.

‘My daughter has an account here though. She doesn’t use a full range of services but it seems okay. They’ve always been very helpful.’

His face lit up. The glasses perched on his bob of a nose were like marbles, seeming as thick as they were round.
‘Oh good. I’m looking to move from Barclays.’

‘Not working for you?’ I asked placing my card on the lip of the machine’s slot.

‘Oh no! They’ve been terrible. I don’t keep all my money here you know, just the stuff for day to day use.’
I paused, he had approached beyond my comfort zone again. I wasn’t going to be putting any pin numbers into a machine with him this close. I had no idea what his vision was like with those lenses.

‘Excuse me, are you using the machine?’ Ten seconds was obviously outside the parameters of the agitated beady little woman’s patience. I turned and smiled as insincerely as I could.

‘Yes. But you go ahead.’

Meanwhile my new associate was joining in the conversation, apologising to the queue jumper and me. I took a couple of steps away and let her get on with it while my pebbly eyed friend followed. Clearly he had more to say.

IF YOU WANT TO READ ON  – GO TO DELUSIONS

 

LIBERTY’S BE THE 80TH WRITER COMPETITION

First of all congratulations to Simon Tonkin, winner of the Liberty Be The 80th Writer Competition.

His winning poem ‘Calais Plage’ can be found here.

http://www.liberty80.org/writers-project/simon-tonkin-calais-plage

Secondly – Damn! I didn’t win it.

I shall go and chew my carpet in the time honoured fashion and tell all who will listen how marvellous it is that Simon has won, and that he deserved it and secretly stick pins in an effigy I am even now crafting of him.

Oh well. Big smiles everybody!

Well done Simon. It is actually very good.

(I hate being magnanimous, especially in defeat.)

The cause is excellent and whether I won or not (didn’t- sulk) the whole project is extremely worthwhile and has more importance and resonance than ever given the ducking and diving our Government is doing over British complicity in CIA torture.

Well done Liberty – a pain in the backside on many occasions but all the more necessary for that.

Whither/Wither le Carré ?

I finally got a chance yesterday to read the Review section of the Observer from the weekend just gone. ‘Paperback of the Week’ grabbed my attention because it was about ‘A Delicate Truth’ by John le Carré. I read the book when it came out and was interested to see what the ‘smart money’ thought of it.

Edward Docx (hmm?) thought there were flaws, the character of Mrs Spencer Hardy being the main one. She is, for our Edward, too much of a cartoon character, a two dimensional device to serve a plot requirement. This flaw, if it is one, and we’ll come back to that point in a second, is one which many believe ‘late le Carré’ is prone to, according to Edward.  He asks the question whether it is possible to believe le Carré is both an important writer whose works will be read for centuries, and a writer whose formal skills are undermined by ‘a weakness for clichés of characterisation and pedestrian late period imaginings of “good” and “bad”’.

He doesn’t give us answer but falls back on saying that le Carré gives him great reading pleasure.

I’m glad he does.

I would agree that le Carré’s later works are sometimes not quite as brilliant as ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’ or ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, but are we surprised at this? How many novels of that quality does one man have in him? There is also the point, and it is a major one, that the world has changed.  We should not forget the shock that the murky, seedy world of espionage as portrayed in the cinema verité form of le Carré’s early works, caused. In a post war flight from reality, espionage stories had been about a fantasy world of upper class heroes, partying their way across the glitzy resorts of the world. Le Carré shocked because he turned his back on this fantasy world, and shone a light into the murkier demi monde  of what spies really did.

When he did that his work was considered ‘edgy’, exposing great truths about society. We expect that sort of world to exist now. It no longer shocks or surprises. To keep plugging the same line would be flogging a one trick pony to death. The world has moved on, and so has le Carré. Perhaps more than those who grew up reading him would like. In the cold war it seemed that despite everything, if one dug deeply enough we knew who was good and who was bad. Psychopaths were there but the system in the west restrained and channelled them whereas the Communists gave them free rein. Flawed, nuanced, doubtful characters abounded, but we knew ours were safer than theirs.

 

We don’t know that now. Our society revelled in beating communism and forgot that bit about psychopaths being everywhere. Le Carré hasn’t, and if some of his obsession with good and bad seems just that, an obsession, it may be because he sees it more clearly than those blinded by the smoke and mirrors. It may very well be that Mrs Spencer Hardy is a little two dimensional. Some people are. She may be a thinly drawn cipher of a right wing American whose hatred of everything governmental transcends sense and morality, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t an accurate portrayal of what is going on in some areas of the western establishment.

Le Carré’s ‘imaginings’ of good and bad only appear pedestrian because so many of us have swallowed the relativist pap we have been fed in recent years. Le Carré has well rehearsed worries about where our Intelligence Services may take us if we allow them to go unchecked. I don’t think that is as much of a problem as it may appear. What worries me more is the privatisation of the intelligence and security sector. A concern le Carré now seems to share. In ‘A Delicate Truth’ he refocuses, in a well timed swing, on the ‘Private Contractors’ who increasingly act as highly paid, unaccountable, self appointed mercenary arms of the State. And increasingly of a State which represents not the will of the People but the will of Global Corporations whose reach and interests subvert and obscure the real purpose of Government of the people, by the people, for the people.

A writer who will be read for centuries? Depends who is controlling what we read.