JOHN LE CARRE

ON THE 50TH BIRTH­DAY OF THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

IWROTE The Spy Who Came in from the Cold at the age of 30 un­der in­tense, un­shared, per­sonal stress, and in ex­treme pri­vacy. As an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer in the guise of a ju­nior diplo­mat at the Bri­tish Em­bassy in Bonn, I was a se­cret to my col­leagues, and much of the time to my­self. I had writ­ten a cou­ple of ear­lier nov­els, nec­es­sar­ily un­der a pseu­do­nym, and my em­ploy­ing ser­vice had ap­proved them be­fore pub­li­ca­tion. Af­ter lengthy soul-search­ing, they had also ap­proved The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. To this day, I don’t know what I would have done if they hadn’t.

As it was, they seem to have con­cluded, rightly if re­luc­tantly, that the book was sheer fic­tion from start to fin­ish, un­in­formed by per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence, and that ac­cord­ingly it con­sti­tuted no breach of se­cu­rity. This was not, how­ever, the view taken by the world’s press, which with one voice de­cided that the book was not merely au­then­tic but some kind of rev­e­la­tory Mes­sage From The Other Side, leav­ing me with noth­ing to do but sit tight and watch, in a kind of frozen awe, as it climbed the best­seller list and stuck there, while pun­dit af­ter pun­dit her­alded it as the real thing.

And to my awe, add over time a kind of im­po­tent anger.

Anger, be­cause from the day my novel was pub­lished, I re­alised that now and for­ever more I was to be branded as the spy turned writer, rather than as a writer who, like scores of his kind, had done a stint in the se­cret world, and writ­ten about it.

But jour­nal­ists of the time weren’t hav­ing any of that. I was the Bri­tish spy who had come out of the wood­work and told it how it re­ally was, and any­thing I said to the con­trary only en­forced the myth. And since I was writ­ing for a pub­lic hooked on Bond and des­per­ate for the an­ti­dote, the myth stuck. Mean­while, I was re­ceiv­ing the sort of at­ten­tion writ­ers dream of. My only prob­lem was, I didn’t be­lieve my own pub­lic­ity. I didn’t like it even while I was sub­scrib­ing to it, and there was in the most lit­eral sense noth­ing I could say to stop the band­wagon, even if I’d wanted to. And I wasn’t sure I did.

In the 60s — and right up to the present day — the iden­tity of a mem­ber of the Bri­tish Se­cret Ser­vices was and is, quite rightly, a state se­cret. To di­vulge it is a crime. The Ser­vices may choose to leak a name when it pleases them. They may show­case an in­tel­li­gence baron or two to give us a glimpse of their om­ni­science and — wait for it — open­ness. But woe be­tide a leaky for­mer mem­ber.

And any­way I had my own in­hi­bi­tions. I had no quar­rel with my for­mer em­ploy­ers, quite the con­trary. Pre­sent­ing my­self to the press in New York a few months af­ter the novel had made its mark in the States, I du­ti­fully if ner­vously mouthed my de­nials: no, no, I had never been in the spy busi­ness; no, it was just a

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