Du­plic­ity, ex­pe­ri­ence or em­pire? Why are fic­tional Bri­tish spooks a cut above the rest?

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Essay -

Few coun­tries have dom­i­nated any in­dus­try as Bri­tain has dom­i­nated the in­dus­try of pro­duc­ing fic­tional spies. Bri­tain in­vented the spy novel with Rud­yard Ki­pling’s dis­sec­tion of the Great Game in Kim and John Buchan’s ad­ven­ture sto­ries. It con­sol­i­dated its lead with Som­er­set Maugham’s Ashen­den sto­ries and Graham Greene’s in­ven­tion of “Greeneland”. It then pro­duced the world’s two most fa­mous spooks: James Bond, the dash­ing wom­an­iser, and Ge­orge Smi­ley, the cere­bral cuck­old, who reap­pears, as we re­ported in these pages ear­lier this month, in a new book.

What ac­counts for this suc­cess? One rea­son is the re­volv­ing door be­tween the se­cret es­tab­lish­ment and the lit­er­ary es­tab­lish­ment. Some of the li­ons of Bri­tish lit­er­a­ture worked as spies. Maugham was sent to Switzer­land to spy for Bri­tain un­der cover of pur­su­ing his ca­reer as a writer. Greene worked for the in­tel­li­gence ser­vices. Both Ian Flem­ing, the cre­ator of Bond, and John le Carre, the cre­ator of Smi­ley, earned their liv­ing as spies. Stella Rim­ing­ton, head of MI5 in 1992-96, has taken to writ­ing spy nov­els in re­tire­ment.

It is as if the se­cret ser­vices are not so much arms of the state as cre­ative-writ­ing schools.

An­other rea­son is that Bri­tish re­al­ity has of­ten been stranger than fic­tion. The story of the Cam­bridge spies — Kim Philby, An­thony Blunt, Guy Burgess and the rest — is as far­fetched as it gets. One Soviet mole at the top of MI6 (Philby); an­other even look­ing af­ter the Queen’s pic­tures (Blunt); a cover-up; a dash to the safety of the Soviet Union; larger-than-life char­ac­ters such as the com­pul­sively pro­mis­cu­ous and per­ma­nently soz­zled Burgess.

There is also a more pro­found rea­son for Bri­tain’s suc­cess. The spy novel is the quin­tes­sen­tial Bri­tish fic­tional form in the same way that the western is quintessen­tially Amer­i­can. Bri­tain’s best spy nov­el­ists are so good pre­cisely be­cause they use the genre to ex­plore what it is that makes Bri­tain Bri­tish: the ob­ses­sion with se­crecy, the na­ture of the es­tab­lish­ment, the ag­o­nies of im­pe­rial de­cline and the com­pli­cated tug of patriotism.

Bri­tain is hon­ey­combed with se­cre­tive in­sti­tu­tions, par­tic­u­larly pub­lic schools and Oxbridge col­leges, which have their own pri­vate lan­guages. At Eton, for ex­am­ple, where Flem­ing was ed­u­cated and le Carre taught for a while, boys dress in tail­coats and call their teach­ers “beaks” and their terms “halves”. Wal- ter Bage­hot ar­gued (ap­prov­ingly) that Bri­tain weaves du­plic­ity into its state­craft. The con­sti­tu­tion rests on a dis­tinc­tion be­tween an “ef­fi­cient” branch that gov­erns be­hind the scenes, and a “dig­ni­fied” branch that puts on a show for the peo­ple.

The Bri­tish ha­bit­u­ally wear masks to con­ceal their true selves. They put on dif­fer­ent cos­tumes for dif­fer­ent roles in Bage­hot’s the­atre of state, and keep stiff up­per lips to con­ceal their emotions. Le Carre (whose real name is David Corn­well) learned to put on a brave face at school be­cause he was so em­bar­rassed by his fa­ther, who was a pro­fes­sional con­fi­dence trick­ster. Greene learned the spy­mas­ter’s art when, as a pupil at Berkham­sted School, he acted as an in­former for his fa­ther, the head­mas­ter.

The Bri­tish es­tab­lish­ment is not only a per­fect ma­chine for pro­duc­ing se­crets and lies. It also pro­duces the mav­er­icks and mis­fits who thrive in the se­cret world. Es­tab­lish­ment types seem to come in two va­ri­eties: smooth con­form­ists who do ev­ery­thing by the rules, and mav­er­icks who break every rule but are nev­er­the­less tol­er­ated be­cause they are mem­bers of the club. The first type is sent into the For­eign Of­fice and the second into MI6. The best spy nov­els are like dis­tort­ing mir­rors in fair­grounds: by ex­ag­ger­at­ing this or that fea­ture of Es­tab­lish­ment Man, they al­low the reader to un­der­stand the ideal form.

The other great theme in Bri­tish spy nov­els is geopo­lit­i­cal de­cline. How can peo­ple who were “trained to Em­pire, trained to rule the waves”, as one of le Carre’s char­ac­ters puts it, bear to live in a world in which the waves are ruled by other pow­ers and state­craft is re­duced to pro­vid­ing fuel for the wel­fare state? Flem­ing’s nov­els are full of la­ments about Bri­tain’s “crum­bling em­pire” and its de­pen­dency-pro­duc­ing state. “You have not only lost a great em­pire,” Tiger Tanaka, a Ja­panese spy, tells Bond, “you have seemed al­most anx­ious to throw it away with both hands.” Le Carre once de­scribed Bri­tain as a coun­try where “failed so­cial­ism is be­ing re­placed by failed cap­i­tal­ism”. The Cir­cus, as he called the se­cret ser­vice’s head­quar­ters, is a phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of de­cline: cramped, shoddy, reek­ing of ris­ing damp, just one hasty re­pair away from col­lapse.

Why re­main loyal to a coun­try that has made such a mess of things and to an es­tab­lish­ment soaked in hypocrisy? Le Carre’s traitors (like the Cam­bridge spies who in­spired them) be­tray their coun­try not for money but be­cause they have trans­ferred their patriotism to the Soviet Union. But what makes Bri­tain’s best spy nov­els so good is that they toy with dis­il­lu­sion­ment only to re­ject it. For all its faults, they say, Bri­tain is the best of a bad lot. Bond is so be­sot­ted with his coun­try that he boasts that “Bri­tish food is the best in the world”. For all his pro­fessed Euro­pean­ness in the new novel, Smi­ley is the model of a Bri­tish gen­tle­man.

And spy­ing pro­vides Bri­tain with a way of re­claim­ing its great­ness, by ex­celling in the most so­phis­ti­cated form of for­eign pol­icy. The Amer­i­cans have the money and the blus­ter, but the Bri­tish have the brains to spend it wisely and re­strain the Amer­i­cans from go­ing over the top. Felix Leiter, Bond’s op­po­site num­ber in the CIA, ad­mits that Bond is play­ing “in a big­ger league” than he is. Smi­ley is more sub­tle than his “cousins” in Amer­ica. The se­cret at the heart of the Bri­tish spy novel is that Bri­tain is much bet­ter than it seems. The writ­ers ag­o­nise over de­cline and hypocrisy, only to con­clude that the Bri­tish are clev­erer and more civilised than any­body else. A com­fort­ing il­lu­sion wrapped in a tale of dis­il­lu­sion­ment: you can’t get more Bri­tish than that.


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